The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Movie Review #952


Limited release on November 30, 2007. Biography/Drama. This film is rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual content and some language. Runs 112 minutes. A French-American co-production. Directed by Julian Schnabel. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood. Based on the book “Le scaphandre et le papillon” by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, and Anne Consigny.


By Alexander Diminiano

Jean-Dominique “Jean-Do” Bauby might be best known as the former editor of France’s Elle magazine. That’s not what “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” shows us, though. There’s two very fleeting references to Jean-Do’s career at Elle. Considering that this movie doesn’t detail him objectively or as a public figure, I think two is a good enough number.

This movie is purely subjective. Not only is it narrated through Jean-Do’s eyes, it’s also filmed, for the most part, from his very perspective. “Diving Bell” opens as Jean-Do wakes up in a hospital room. He tries to speak to the doctors standing over him, but they don’t seem to realize he’s speaking. Then they explain to him that he has locked-in syndrome, a paralysis of all voluntary muscles save for the eyes. Jean-Do refuses to believe it. He tries to talk to the doctors, and when they don’t respond, he tries to yell loudly at them. Then he realizes, all of a sudden, that he’ll never be able to verbalize his thoughts to anyone ever again.

Jean-Do’s condition is a sad one. His condition is extremely rare, affecting less than 1% of stroke victims. But “Diving Bell” puts us vividly in the mind of one of these victims. We the audience are the only people who he can talk to now. We hear every one of his thoughts, so we know how he feels about all of his visitors. But he learns to make his way through his troubles, seemingly by not worrying about his visitors, or even his illness. There’s not much he can look to the future for, so he learns to appreciate the past.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is an achievement in so many ways. It adopts the look and sound of a confused, impaired human mind, while keeping alive the passionate narrative of a fully intact spirit. We’re impelled to watch silently, motionlessly as Jean-Do’s story unfolds. Mathieu Amalric does a superb job accomplishing the same thing screenwriter Ron Harwood (“The Pianist”) does, and that is translating an absolute tragedy into a deeper story of hope and unlikely triumph. The point-of-view is poignant and resonant. Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote his memoir, on which “Diving Bell” is based, while suffering locked-in syndrome, entirely through partner-assisted scanning. (He died suddenly only two days after the book’s publication.) Undoubtedly, the book itself was quite a feat, and for different reasons, its adaptation is, too.


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