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The Diving Bell & The Butterfly - Review

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

JEAN-Dominique Bauby was the high-flying editor of Elle magazine in France until, in 1997, he suffered a massive stroke that left him with a condition known as ‘locked-in syndrome’.

Fully conscious but paralysed everywhere except his left eye, Bauby could only communicate by blinking but nevertheless succeeded in creating a memoir of his experience that was eventually published to huge acclaim just days before his death.

Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell & The Butterfly is a bold attempt to re-tell Jean-Dominique Bauby’s story from the author’s perspective. The diving bell represents the body in which he ended up and the film unfolds from his perspective – blinking whenever he blinks, or turning to face or hear who-ever Bauby is communicating with.

Yet in spite of employing a device that could seem limiting and being based on a true story that’s actually quite depressing, the film emerges as a genuinely life-affirming piece of work that inspires and impresses as much as it makes you feel sad.

The camera-work takes a little bit of getting used to, particularly early on as Bauby (played by new Bond villain Mathieu Amalric) adjusts to his new state and surroundings, but it quickly helps viewers to empathise with his predicament and makes Bauby’s achievements all the more amazing.

Amalric, himself, delivers a genuinely unselfish performance – appearing mostly off-camera with only his thoughts as our guide to his emotional state. But we do get glimpses of Bauby before the stroke via flashbacks that also afford insights into his relationship with his own father (heartbreakingly portrayed by veteran Max Von Sydow).

The remainder of the cast is made up of the nurses who helped to realise Bauby’s novel and the friends and family who continued to support him throughout (as portrayed by the likes of Emmanuelle Seigner and Marie-Josee Croze). They talk directly to the camera – and therefore the audience – with words of encouragement that are both heartfelt and amusing. And it possibly helps that Schnabel has deliberately chosen to cast good-looking actresses, presumably to keep things easy on the eye.

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly has already won two Golden Globes (for best director and foreign language film) and is firmly in contention for both Bafta and Oscar awards. It’s no less than Schnabel deserves for his innovative approach to the subject matter that’s imaginative and inspiring in spite of its bittersweet reality.

In French, with subtitles

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 1hr 52mins
UK Release Date: February 8, 2008