I took The Diving Bell and the Butterfly out from my local library on Sunday, at the same time I finished reading Despair and at the same time I also checked out Choke. It was a DVD, and it was free, and I had heard very much about it at the end of last year, but still had no idea what it was about. I told my mom she was welcome to watch it if interested and she asked me what it was about and I said I didn't really know. I finally got around to watching it last night, and I think it might be most properly enjoyed if you go into it not knowing anything about it. That said, this review will contain "spoilers." Any discussion of this movie's plot is in fact, a spoiler. If you do not want to have the experience of seeing it altered by foreknowledge, please take my word for it and find a copy and two free hours and surrender yourself to it. I cannot imagine anybody would ever be disappointed by this film unless they are totally and avowedly against foreign films.
Let the spoilers begin. The opening minutes of the film are blurry. The sound is difficult to hear, the words are difficult to make out. Eventually the viewer realizes they are in a hospital. There is a first-person perspective, and for a while it appears that the entire film will continue on in this vein. There is clearly a voice speaking meant to be the main character but it becomes apparent after a few minutes that none of the people he sees are able to hear him. We realize it is only an interior monologue. In the first discernible moments of action, two doctors enter to tell this man that he has suffered a cerebrovascular accident, or a stroke that has left him paralyzed from head to toe. They call it, somewhat humorously, "locked-in syndrome." The only muscle over which he has control is his left eye. He can still see out of his right eye, however, and the doctors decide to sew it shut, which is the first of several painful moments in the film.
Eventually we learn that the main character's name is Jean-Dominique Bauby, and that he is the editor of Elle magazine. His wife, or rather, not his wife but the mother of his children, Celine, is the first to visit him. He has left her for a woman named Ines who will end up never visiting him in the hospital, and only calling him once in another one of the more particularly painful scenes in this film. He has two speech therapists, who see hope in his ability to move his tongue slightly.
The main point to the film, however, is the alphabet, which is painstaking for the viewer to watch as it must have been for Bauby to experience. One very patient therapist, Henriette, recites the letters, E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L, and so on, which is the order of the most frequently used letters in the French language, until Bauby blinks his left eye to choose the letter to spell the word he wants to communicate. For some viewers that know "some French," such as myself, the translation of the letters Bauby chooses and the ones that appear on the subtitle will sometimes be maddening. When the therapist (or later, the transcriptionist) says "J" and the subtitles say, "I" of course it make sense, but will make anyone who has studied French feel a little bit stupider for reading the subtitles instead of listening. True, if all French people spoke this slowly, I might be able to understand them adequately myself. The appropriate word for these scenes, which then make up the majority of the film, is "painstaking."
Soon, Jean-Dominique, or Jean-Do as he is frequently called, decides to write a memoir, since he had a contract out with a publishing company to write a book before his accident. He writes the entire book by this method of blinking and the title of the book is the same as the movie. The movie is the adaptation of that book, and since it is something of a poetic title, deserves explanation: the "diving bell" is signified by several scenes in the film of himself in a scuba-diving suit, floating helplessly in the depths of the sea, and the "butterfly" is only signified in a shot or two; the diving bell is his body, which cannot move, which cannot speak, and the butterfly is his mind, which is fueled by his memories, and his imagination, which seems to have become more vivid since the rest of his body has suffered paralysis.
There are many excellent scenes in the film--practically every single one is, really--but amongst the ones that stand out more are the two scenes with Max von Sydow, who plays Jean-Do's father, the flashback scene to Lourdes which shows him with a religious ex-girlfriend on a mission to purchase an illuminating Virgin Mary statue, the scene where Celine takes him on a boat and gives him The Count of Monte Cristo, which he had hoped to write a modern update of through a female perspective, and reads to him from a particularly prescient scene, and finally, near the end, the memory of the stroke he suffered, while riding in his car with his son to the theater.
Julian Schnabel is a name that seems familiar because of his background in modern art, and he has only made a few films of note--Before Night Falls, Basquiat, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. To be honest, I saw Before Night Falls a few years ago and I fell asleep, but it was during a period when I fell asleep during many movies (note: I also fell asleep during No Country for Old Men, which did not affect me anywhere near as much as this film). Of course Basquiat was great, particularly for David Bowie playing Andy Warhol, but this film more than any other should establish Schnabel as one of the few true artists among film directors of the present moment, and one can only hope that his work will now appear more frequently due to the recognition this film has received.