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Film Review

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

In 1995, the 43 year old editor of the French fashion magazine Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby, had a major stroke, and lay totally paralyzed in a Calais hospital, only able to communicate by blinking one eye. His mind and memory were completely intact, he could hear, but could not speak and was utterly trapped in his body, a rare condition called "locked-in" syndrome. He "writes" a book about his experience, and dies of pneumonia a few days after the book is complete. So how could any film maker possibly deal with this story, much less produce a brilliant film, surely one of the best of 2007? The film opens with spectacular shots of ice falls from glaciers, then darkness, then voices, then shifting shapes, then a blurred face looking at him a nose length away. Bauby has awakened from a lengthy coma and is discovering that no one can hear him when he speaks. Worse, his other eye must be sewn shut to prevent a corneal infection. He wants to die, but a dedicated team of doctors and therapists are determined to help him. A speech therapist fashions a plan whereby Bauby communicates by blinking his eyelid, once for yes, twice for no. She then takes a chart of the alphabet, arranged in order of the the frequency of use, holds it up to Bauby's face, pronounces each letter, and looks at his eye to see if he blinks after she has spoken the letter. He tells her that he wants to die, and she becomes furious and even more determined to help him. And does, including a black comedic trip to Lourdes. So in this tedious fashion, Bauby begins to communicate, and ultimately dictates a book that becomes a French best seller, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Bauby, who had lived an extraordinarily full life as a fashion journalist, was irresistible to women, had many lovers, married and fathered three children, then left for a girlfriend, traveled widely, enjoyed good food and wine, and seemed to have lived one version of the ideal life. Now all he can do is look at his gorgeous therapist's cleavage as she peers into his face, and ponder the irony and torture of something wonderful being so close yet unattainable. We hear Bauby's thoughts and his narration of what will become his book, which he dictates to a woman hired by his publisher. He had had a contract to write a book prior to his stroke, but this is not what anyone had in mind. He remembers many pleasurable experiences, and the camera shows them in unimaginably fine cinematography. He constructs dreams, such as seeing the Empress Josephine (wife of Napoleon III), the original patron of the hospital, glide down the hall ways, and Nijinsky in costume gracefully leaping behind. He regrets the many things that he wanted to do, such as apologize to a man who became a hostage, or spend more time with his children. And he has not lost his wicked sense of humor, as in his unspoken response to his doctor who says he wants to be his friend: just be a doctor. There is a moving scene of his memory of shaving his 92 year old father, the father played by Max Von Sydow. In fact, much of the film is composed of Bauby's dreams and memories, and they are lyric.

Diving Bell is often very moving, yet despite Bauby's terrible situation, this film is definitely not depressing. There are parts of great sadness but also of great beauty. We are astonished by the resiliency of his spirit and the will to live and love. Julian Schnabel, a well known American neo-expressionist painter, and director of only two previous films, has produced a masterpiece. The performances are among the best that I have ever seen. Mathieu Amalric plays Bauby, and is sensational, both as the paralyzed Bauby and his earlier self. His still devoted wife, Celine, played by Emmanuelle Seigner, is exquisite in every sense. There is a marvelous scene where she answers a phone call from his mistress, and has to relay Bauby's response. Even minor characters are wonderful, and every woman is gorgeous in that inimitable French way. But it is the camera work, by the gifted Janusz Kaminsky, that is absolutely stunning. There is such beauty on the screen that it leaves you breathless at times. I was reluctant to see this film because of the story, but having seen it, cannot recommend it enough. For me, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly ranks with The Lives of Others as the two best films that I have seen this year. Playing at the Embarcadero.

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