January 10, 2008

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (PG-13)
The editor of French Elle has his world reduced to the flutter of his own eyelid in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a smart and surprisingly funny and touching movie based on the real-life memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby.

We see the first moments of the former playboy editor of French Elle, called Jean-Do (Mathieu Amalric), in his new world — one in which he can look out but can’t (at first) communicate. He can hear his doctors but they can’t hear his responses — which are perfectly coherent in his head but can’t leave his lips. He can see (though one eye is blurry and eventually sewn shut) but he can only see the things that float in front of his window of vision, he can move his eyes but not turn his head. He is afflicted with “locked-in syndrome,” his doctor tells him, the result of a massive stroke. This means he can feel sorry about being a jerk to the mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) of his children and he can long for his girlfriend but he can’t express these emotions in any kind of complex way. At first, he learns to blink — once for yes, twice for no — his responses to yes or no questions. Soon, a speech therapist devises an alphabet for him, with the letters ordered from most used to least used, and, through a series of blinks, he is able, slowly, to convey ideas. “Thank you,” he says to his therapist (after first angering her by telling her, in his first shot at blink-talking, he wanted to die). With work and the help of a stenographer, he eventually dictates a book (one eye blink at a time) about his life and the strange experience of having a finely tuned brain trapped inside a lifeless body.

The movie uses the image of a diving bell (the underwater chamber for a diver) to illustrate the detached nature of Jean-Do’s existence. It’s a good image but it’s almost not needed. You can feel the frustration, loneliness and sadness of Jean-Do’s situation from his narration and through the camera angles, which show most of the action as Jean-Do sees it. He sits in a wheelchair, mid-chest level to most people, giving him an opportunity to leer at his ex’s legs but not the ability to look up into the face of a friend who forgets to bend down to talk to him. A particularly funny scene has a friend visiting Jean-Do and reading the alphabet but losing his place, forgetting to look up at Jean-Do instead of at the card he’s reading and getting only a jumble of nonsensical letters. On the outside, Jean-Do is slumped in his chair unresponsive as his flustered friend swears. Inside, Jean-Do is laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly appeared on many top ten lists for 2007 and I can see why. It surprises you with how honest it is and how melodramatic it isn’t. Even in his altered state, Jean-Do remains a real person, both introspective (there’s almost no other kind of “spective” he can be at this point) and flawed. He appreciates the help he gets in seeing some bit of life (his children, the creation of his book) but he still longs for his seemingly fickle girlfriend and thinks about his fast car and his celebrity job. Funny and awe-inspiring, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly shows you a character from the inside out. A

Rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual content and some language. Directed by Julian Schnabel and written by Ronald Harwood (from the novel by Jean-Dominique Bauby), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an hour and 54 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Miramax Films.