Friday, January 15, 2016

Best of the 2000s: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

3.5 Stars

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s (Mathieu Amalric) memoir of the same name. In life, Mr. Bauby was an actor, writer, and editor of ELLE. In 1995, at the age of 43, Bauby suffered a stroke which left him with locked-in syndrome. His mind remained fully functional, but he lost any ability to use his body. He could not even turn his head. The only way that he could interact with the world was to blink his left eye-lid.

The film opens here, a stationary camera facing doctors, nurses, and physical therapists at odd angles, as they begin to explain what has happened and what Bauby’s new reality will be.  These first moments are terrifying, even upsetting. Together, Bauby and the hospital staff eventually work out a system of communication, where a single blink indicates an affirmative response and two blinks negative. They begin by asking him a series of yes or no questions to test his cognition, and for a moment The Diving Bell and the Butterfly hits greatness. When Bauby is asked if he was the editor of ELLE, the screen briefly goes black (indicating a single blink) and Bauby says, “Hell yes, I was the editor of ELLE!” In that moment, the film flashes back to his beautiful car, a photo shoot, and the extraordinary life he led before his stroke. When the flashback ends, the audience finds itself trapped in the hospital with Bauby once again.

That sequence is dazzling. However, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly soon gets down to the business of explaining how Bauby constructed his memoir – dedicated transcriptionists read the letters of the alphabet in the order of their frequency in the French language, and Bauby blinks when the transcriptionist reads the appropriate letter. This allows the audience to see how The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was composed. Unfortunately, once that form of communication sets in, the transitions between Bauby’s memories (or fantasies) and his realities happen more gradually – which lessens their impact.

I struggled with how to review The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. On the one hand, almost everything about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is very good. It is well written and poignant. I think the pacing could have been addressed, but then that may have been an intentional choice to allow the viewer to gain a sense of the pace of Bauby’s reality. The acting is superb. Amalric is wonderful as Bauby. Emmanuelle Seigner is excellent as the mother of his children, and Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father is heartbreaking. On the other hand, I never intend to watch The Diving Bell and the Butterfly again. It’s not what I would call entertaining. In fact, some passages of the film are actually quite difficult to watch. I think I can safely say that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an excellent film without much re-watch value. I suppose with that caveat, I recommend The Diving Bell and the Butterfly quite strongly, but I don’t think that it is the classic film I began this project in order to find.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly finds itself on this list because 5 of the sampled critics named it one of the 10 best films of the 2000s. David Denby of The New Yorker named it the best film of the decade.

Once Again, From Out in the Void,

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