“Ça c’est la vie?”

American artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel has crafted a visually stunning psychological portrait of a man trapped in his physical body but able to traverse time and place simply by letting his imagination run wild.

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Review by Hugh Lilly

Julian Schnabel’s third feature film, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a former editor of the French fashion journal Elle. Just prior to Christmas 1995, Bauby – ‘Jean-Do’ to his friends – suffered a massive stroke that not only left him in a weeks-long coma but also paralysed almost his entire body. The only remaining faculty of use to him was his left eye, and all he could do to communicate with the world was blink, one staccato motion at a time. It was in this manner that he would put together his memoir, letter by letter, ‘imprisoned’ in his own body, which lay mostly dormant in Room 119 of the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer in northern Normandy. The rare condition with which he was afflicted is known as ‘locked-in syndrome’, and although he was unable to move much of his body, he could escape in his mind and take flight to anywhere he liked. As he writes, the only two things which can never be dulled by physical disability are imagination and memory. With this in mind, the book’s subtitle, “a memoir of life in death,” is fitting.

After mastering basic yes-no answers (one blink for no, two for yes) Jean-Do’s speech therapist introduced a way for him to form more elegant phrases: she would read out the letters of the French alphabet in order of their frequency of use, and he would blink to indicate the letter he wished to use. In this manner, Bauby – with the aid of an assistant – slowly formed the sentences that would become the 150-page book chronicling his time in hospital and his experience as a ‘butterfly’ trapped in an inescapable cocoon. Beautiful and meticulous camerawork by renowned cinematographer Janusz Kaminski captures the essence of the book perfectly, providing an articulate cinematic interpretation of Bauby’s words, and Mathieu Almeric, a French actor perhaps best known to mainstream audiences for his role in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, imbues Bauby with just the right amount of wry cynicism and sentimentality, qualities his friends appreciated in him.

Vague and blurry, the opening shots of the film plunge us immediately into Bauby’s world; we see what he sees, or rather we see his fractured, blurred vision of the world and those who inhabit it. Fluttering as if trapped under a glass, the butterfly of Jean-Do’s mind – and, by extension, the camera lens, opens and closes with his left eyelid. Inaudible muffled chattering can be heard in the background as a doctor approaches to assess Bauby’s condition upon first waking from a coma three weeks after suffering the stroke which so viciously crippled him. The film continues in this fashion, guiding us through this bizarre, monocular vision of an altered reality, one where characters, like Bauby’s children and their mother, flitter in and out of view. Because the camerawork throughout much of the film is subjective, it becomes impossible not to empathise with the plight our protagonist finds himself in.

The first of a number of flashbacks transports us to a time before the accident, when Bauby was editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, where mingling with rock stars and beautiful models was all in a day’s work. This is curtly interrupted by a doctor who sutures shut Bauby’s right eye, and, in one of the most grimace-inducing scenes in recent memory, we see this all from behind the eyelid; based purely on how the shot looks, comparisons to the Saw and Hostel franchises could easily be drawn. Schnabel’s camera switches in and out of this subjective position, and it is not until almost half way through the film’s 112 minutes that we are afforded a full view of the broken, fragile body in which Bauby is trapped. In another flashback, a touching scene unfolds: Bauby, a few days before the accident, visits his ageing father, Papinou (Max von Sydow), who is confined to the top floor of his Paris apartment. Bauby gives the old man a shave and, as he looks at himself in a mirror surrounded by pictures of his son, he tells Jean-Do how proud he is of him. In a much more affecting scene later in the film, the father calls his son and tells him, over a speaker-phone: “We’re in the same boat…. we’re both locked-in cases; you in your body, and me in my apartment.”

Visits from friends and family break the tedium of hospital routines, and afford an opportunity for Bauby to venture outside. In one such sequence, set to a Tom Waits song, his ex-wife Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner) and his children take him out for a day at the beach, and although Bauby cannot directly communicate with his son, they are able to play a game of Hangman together. Of course, Bauby can escape the confines of his hospital room in another way: in his dreams. He frequently travels back in time, and resuscitates long-lost memories of time spent with friends, and of imaginary, fantastic meals at expensive restaurants. Because his hearing was dulled, Bauby longed for moments of silence; it was basically aural torment if someone forgot to close the door of his hospital room, because he would be inundated by a cacophony of irritating, never-receding sounds. However, “…when blessed silence returns,” he wrote, “I can listen to the butterflies that flutter inside my head. To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wing beats are barely audible. Loud breathing is enough to drown them out. This is astonishing: my hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better. I must have butterfly hearing…” During the book’s composition, Bauby’s long-term prognosis was not fully known; 10 days after its French publication, he died from pneumonia in a hospital near Paris. He was 44.

The film won numerous awards including Best Foreign Film at this year’s Golden Globes press conference, where Schnabel was also awarded Best Director – an accolade repeated at the 60th Annual Cannes Film Festival. In addition, it was in the running for four awards at this year’s Oscars, and film critics around the world praised it unanimously for its visual composition and unique perspective. Hailed as one of the best films of 2007, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly played at the recent World Cinema Showcase in Auckland, and opens in select cinemas on May 22.

Links: Official site, Wikipedia, IMdb

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