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on January 28, 2008
On December 8, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, known as Jean-Do to his intimates, age forty-three, editor-in-chief of the world-famous fashion magazine, Elle, was living the "good life" to the extreme when he became the victim of a devastating cerebro-vascular accident that left him in a state of total paralysis, incapable of any verbal communication, in what is known in the medical community as "locked-in syndrome." His mental faculties totally intact as he laid motionless in his hospital bed, Bauby learned to communicate with the outside world using his left eyelid, the only part of his body over which he still had any control. During the next fourteen months, using a communication code developed by his therapist and his publisher's assistant, who transcribed this code, Bauby was able to compose, letter by letter, a lyrical and heartbreaking memoir of his life struggle, "Le Scaphandrier et le papillon." Bauby died in 1997, two days after its publication.

From Bauby's tragic story, Schnabel has produced an ambitious film which succeeds on all levels. The problem facing Schnabel to bring the book to the screen was how to keep the spectator interested beyond the dramatic situation itself? To this end, he uses several solutions in succession.

The first thirty minutes of the film are entirely shown in subjective camera. Without any mannerisms or filmic embellishment, Schnabel succeeds in making the spectator conscious of the patient's terrible situation and of his feelings facing his state of total helplessness. At this point, the transposition of our mind is such that the profound disquiet goes beyond simple empathy, becoming also physical.

Schnabel builds the suspense by progressively revealing the face of the patient. It takes about thirty minutes into the film before we get to clearly see Bauby's distorted, frozen face. From the very beginning of the film, we are not witnessing the story of a man, but we will be this man. But it would be pretentious to say that we will then understand him, the aim of the film being only to paint his intimate portrait, using this ingenious technique.

Following this long expository scene, the focus of the film now shifts toward Jean-Do's interaction with the people who surround him. These interactions are enough to make the Schnabel's film heartrending and less lyrical or pathetic as it progresses and becomes more of a narrative. This is certainly not a film gimmick to relieve the unbearably oppressive atmosphere crushing the viewers, but a means to keep their interest.

In what follows, we see episodes of Jean-Do's fantasies, a mixture of memories and dreams, some poignant and some comical or sexy, with some fantastic mise-en-scènes. Jean-Do days resemble parades on a catwalk, about which he was most familiar, as he is constantly visited by the beautiful women who now populate his life: his speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), who will teach him the communication code, his physiotherapist, Marie Lopez (Olatz Lopez Garmendia), his estranged partner and the mother of his three children, Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), comes to see him often and help out as much as she can, organizing a picnic on the beach with the whole family on Father's day, or reading to Jean-Do the voluminous mail that he receives daily. And of course, there is Claude (Ann Consigny), who patiently transcribes Jean-Do's "dictations." Bauby, in order to survive his ordeal without losing his mind, had decided to write a memoir, would it be only to prove to his ex-colleagues that he was not a "vegetable" ("What kind? "he asks, "a carrot? a leek?" In a beautiful metaphor, Schnabel literally showing the diving bell which physically imprisons the patient, and the freeing of his imagination in the form of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis and fluttering among fields of flowers may be decorative, but it is certainly appropriate. The desperately claustrophobic atmosphere at the beginning of the film dissipates somewhat with Bauby's realization of the new freedom left to him by hanging onto his humanness.

The ending of this film consists of a dream sequence showing the opening scene of Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), but this time the film is in color, as Jean-Do is driving through Paris in his new car. He is happily going to see his children at his estranged wife's country house. He takes his son, Theophile (Theo Sampaio) for a ride and suffers a stroke. The music in Truffaut's film, linking the beginning and the end of his production, accompanies Antoine Doinel as he escapes the delinquent's school to freedom and happiness only to meet imprisonment, as now Jean-Do has.

The acting of Mathieu Almaric as Jean-Do is outstanding, and he bears a large responsibility for the film's success. Whether in the flashbacks and fantasies, as the ostentatious ladies' man, or when he stares into the camera with his drooling face, frozen and yet so eloquent, and as the voice-over, where Almaric is another aspect of the Jean-Do, mischievous, sardonic, despairing, lyrical, at no time in this film can Almaric's credibility be questioned.

An exceptional cast of supporting actors and actresses all provide intense richness of emotions, acting with restraint, with hints of modesty and shyness, contrasting with Jean-Do's absolute and candid thoughts. In particular, the four women are superb. Schnabel seems to have made them a little indistinguishable, since for Jean-Do, connected to life mostly through women, they must each have represented the eternal, untouchable feminine. Patrick Chesnais is perfect as Dr. Lepage, the stereotypical doctor, mixing cynicism with some compassion, who is there for himself and incidentally for his patients. Schnabel is to be congratulated for his discerning choice of exclusively using French actors.

Ronald Harwood, screenwriter for Roman Polanski's two most recent films, The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist (2005), wrote the screenplay which is the backbone of this film. While maintaining the basic structure of the book, Harwood succeeds rather well in pacing the story between immobility and action. However, the key to his success is in making the camera become the man. This is not a new idea, but neither is it a melodramatic gimmick here, and at precisely the right moment Harwood's perspective changes, and his film follows a little more closely the demands of a traditional biography. Friends and family from Bauby's life are introduced one by one, but never in a predictable way, nor based upon clichés.

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List/1993, Saving Private Ryan/1998), Spielberg's chief cinematographer for the last fifteen years, is brilliant. Rarely has the subjective camera been so well handled: camera out of focus to express the blurring caused by tears; the fades out to black corresponding to the blinking of the eyelid; the occasional leaning of the camera and the brusqueness of some trackings harmoniously fade the shots into the subjective camera. The sets are all spectacular. The image is at times out-of-focus, sometimes brilliant and colorful, sometimes blinding and off-center: this is truly the work of Schnabel, the painter.

Schnabel, perhaps by accident, provides a free endorsement for the French governmental health system. The whole film takes place on the backdrop of the public Maritime Hospital at Berk-sur-Mer, in northern France. However, viewing the medical care provided to Bauby and the environment of the establishment, American audiences will be forgiven for thinking that this is a special private hospital where only well to do people, such as Bauby, are treated. Not so, this is simply a public hospital, typical of where any French person gets his or her free care.

As in all Schnabel's other film, the soundtrack plays an important part. In this film, the rather eclectic music mix, from Lolita by Nelson Riddle, to Jean Constantin's theme of Les 400 coups, to U2, Nino Rota, Tom Waits, and Paul Cantelon, who wrote piano music for the film, gives the film a contemporary rock-punk connotation.

Schnabel raises several points. He touches the question of continuity in relationships, when the other person becomes a mere shadow of his or her old self, in particular, when the relationship has been intense and at the same time fragile in time and faithfulness. This is raised in a heartbreaking scene, where Céline becomes the unwilling intermediary between Jean-Do and Inès, Inès telling Jean-Do that she cannot bear to come and see him as he is now.

Schnabel describes the souvenirs and bits of one's life that one must be seeing while standing before the gates of death, but in this particular case taking just a little longer. However, Jean-Do has already died, and has come back to life as an eye.

The film is also about what it means to be an artist. Sickness is a bit like genius, a source of misunderstanding and exclusion, and the artist, like the patient, is in constant battle against the outside world. To escape one's fate, society's cruelty and restraints, one can only rely on one's own intelligence, creativity, and heroism. By reaching deep within himself, Bauby extends his life beyond the limitations of his body by dreaming and creating a work of art. It's a face-off against himself, where the Superego, the butterfly, gains the upper hand over the Ego, the diving bell. Schnabel is a spiritual man, but not a religious one. He believes in the goodness of people, and in their capacity for being patient with their fellow humans and treating them well, just for the sake of it, the way the women in the film give freely of themselves, trying to help Jean-Do.

Finally, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a simple but powerful lesson about life, not in the moralistic sense, but in the energy it carries. As Bauby says in voice-over at the beginning of the film, the lesson is that we should experience life, living in the present, learning to recognize and appreciate the small moments of happiness as they come along, and most importantly, to love.
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Julian Schnabel, well accepted as one of the important visual artists of our time, continues to impress with his small but elite group of films, proving that paintings and cinema are closely related as a means to reach the psyche. In 'Le Scaphandre et le papillon' ('The Diving Bell and the Butterfly') he has transformed the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby (with the sensitive screen adaptation by Ronald Harwood) into an experience for the mind and the heart. It is an extraordinary blend of visual effects, poetry, exquisite acting, and the perseverance of the human mind to communicate with the world when all seeming variations of communication are stripped away.

Jean-Dominique (Jean-Do) Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) was the editor of the French magazine 'Elle', living with the beautiful Céline Desmoulins (Emmanuelle Seigner) and their three children, when during a ride with his son he has a massive stroke that leaves him completely paralyzed (the 'locked-in syndrome'). When he awakens from his coma he is able to hear and to see but he cannot speak or move, except for his eyes. From this point we, the audience, experience the world as through the eyes of Jean-Do, share his frustrations of being unable to speak, and in his ultimately having to communicate through the fine skills of his speech therapist Henriette Durand (Marie-Josée Croze) by blinking his eye once or twice for yes or no as each letter of the alphabet is spoken - an arduous task for both patient and visitor. He decides he wants to write his memoirs and Claude (Anne Consigny) is assigned to take his 'dictation'. The only faculties Jean-Do retains are his memory and his fantasies, and it is through the acting out of these that we discover the victim's private and secret life as well as his relationships to colleagues and lovers and family. He imagines the hospital where he is confined in the time of Nijinsky (Nicolas Le Riche) and Empress Eugénie (Emma de Caunes) and filters the realities of his life through the interactions with his comrades Laurent (Isaach De Bankolé) and others as well as vivid memories of his relationship with his father Papinou Bauby (Max von Sydow). With the patient assistance of the health providers, friends and family he is able to complete his memoir, the story of a man locked in a diving bell longing for the freedom of a butterfly, released form its cocoon. .

Getting used to the film technique Schnabel uses takes patience, but for those who are willing to accept the pace of the film, rich with fantasy and historical sequences, the impact is not only compelling but breathtaking. This telling of a true story is a fine work from all concerned and for this viewer it is one of the best films of recent years. Grady Harp, May 08
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on February 1, 2008
"Locked-in Syndrome", a fate worse than death afflicts Jean-Dominique Bauby in this true story of the final chapter of the remarkable life of the Elle editor and famous Parisian. With a healthy mind and a useless body, Bauby experiences the horror of only being able to communicate with the outside world by closing one functioning eyelid. Adding to his torturous existence is that Bauby's mind was meant to be shared with the world. As an author, editor and shining member of the intellectual elite, Bauby dazzled those who came in contact with him. When his body died, his great thoughts did not go away. He could not turn off his creativity, his dreams, his desires or his memories...he just had no way to share them.

The first half of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" details the opening months of that living hell. One could not think of a worse existence than being in a hospital room with a TV turned to an off-air station during the overnight hours when it blares an alarm. With no way of changing the channel or asking for help, he suffers for what must have seemed like an eternity. His days are filled hating the sights of endless doctors, specialists and therapists, all motivated to help their "famous patient", hope not shared by Bauby. All he gains from these visits is an occasional cheap thrill as he's able to ogle one of the many young, Elle reading specialists who dote over him like a superstar.

Nearly all of these scenes are filmed from the POV of Bauby, with his internal thoughts providing sardonic commentary to the action in the hospital room. This provides an uncomfortable presentation, as the audience experiences the realities of his life and thoughts. Once a solution to his communication problem is presented and a system is developed where his eyelid movements spell out his words and thoughts, he's able to slowly (V e r y S l o w l y) communicate with the world again. What begins as a devastating declaration to his therapist of "I W a n t D e a t h" eventually grows into his memoirs. The book titled "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", penned at one blink at a time becomes his last gift to the world, a collection of his dreams, his regrets, and his loves.

Bauby's book is the work of a dying man dreaming about living again. Not angry or jealous, he wants one last chance to speak about the beauties of life, from the love of a great woman to dinner at Paris' finest restaurant. Scenes of his book are dramatized in the film and come across as strange Charlie Kaufman-like creations where images from his healthy life blend with his hospital setting and are often colored by stories from history or fairy tales. Dramatized on screen, the film gives the audience a glimpse into the most important organ of the human body, one that goes on dreaming, loving and hurting long after the rest of the body has given up on life.
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on August 31, 2010
This was, by all accounts, a stunning film. The photography was sensitive, beautiful, evocative, as was the acting. Had I not read the book I would have loved it. But, I did read the book, and out of respect for a man who made an effort which can only be described as superhuman, I simply cannot recommend this film.

Jean-Dominigue Bauby, former editor-in-chief of Elle Magazine, was struck down in the prime of life by a massive stroke which left him completely paralyzed, but conscious. Personally, I cannot imagine a worse fate. Once he emerged from his coma, Bauby was faced with the knowledge that he was trapped inside the "diving bell", his own personal prison. It was only through the concerted efforts of his his inner circle of friends and his speech therapist, who devised a method through which he could communicate to the outside world by blinking his left eyelid, that Bauby was able to survive the horrors of his half life--and, indeed, overcome them.

Where the movie fails, and fails horribly, is in telling the truth. The movie version was clearly based primarily on input from Bauby's ex, the mother of his two children. (Why Schnabel felt compelled to add a third child is beyond me, as it added nothing to the story.) If you watch the film, you will weep at his ex's devotion, shudder at the rejection of his girlfriend, be touched by Bauby's deep remorse about how badly he treated his loyal ex--none of which conforms to reality.

The true story, the one you can read in Bauby's book, is far more touching. Bauby's "personal bodyguard", those who cared for him tenderly every day, did not include his ex, whom he only mentions once in his book. It did however, include his girlfriend, who certainly did not reject him, and in whose arms Bauby died. (It was clear from these distortions of reality that Bauby's ex had a vengeful streak.) But, more importantly, the most powerful loves of Bauby's life were his two children, with whom he shared a deeply loving relationship. (In one key scene from the book, unfortunately ommitted from the movie, Bauby's daughter climbs into his lap and repeats over and over again, "You are my daddy.")

Aside from maligning the people Bauby genuinely loved, the film also misprepresented Bauby himself. The author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was not prone to self-pity. Not once did he express the desire to die. Nor did he have sexual fantasies about the women who were helping him. (French directors really need to give "cherchez la femme" a rest.) Instead, what Bauby wrote about, and what he has to offer the rest of us, was an indomitable spirit, a courage that defies words. Though he was trapped in the prison of his body, Bauby was able to draw upon the most poetic, the most profound insights in order to create a memoir that is honest without being self-indulgent.

Ultimately, I believe that the film did Bauby a grave injustice. Bauby went to such heroic lengths to communicate, the least Schnabel could have done would have been to respect the words Bauby labored so hard to produce. I would encourage everyone to read Bauby's memoir. It is deeply moving and much more inspiring than the film. And it's the real thing.
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on April 4, 2013
My wife suffered a brain aneurysm that put he in a persistent vegetative state...... but I knew she was still there. She came out of a coma the day before they were to disconnect her, and for nine years we have struggled for her to come back. This movie helped me realize what she has lived and I lend it to anyone who benefits from what it can teach.The more people who can be made to understand the prison people like Jean and my wife have lived, the more hope there is for all who believe life is precious.
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on June 1, 2008

Because film is a largely realistic medium, "impressionism" is a style rarely attempted by even the most adventurous of moviemakers. Indeed, Terrance Malick is one of the few directors working today who has found consistent success (artistic if not commercial) in that genre. Now we can add French filmmaker Julian Schnabel to the list for his truly remarkable work in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a movie that defies easy categorization and is quite unlike anything we've encountered before.

The story definitely falls into the "truth is stranger than fiction" category. Jean-Dominique Bauby was a 43-year-old writer and editor-in-chief of Elle Magazine when, in 1995, he suffered a massive stroke that left him completely paralyzed in all but his left eye. Confined to a bed and a wheelchair and unable to speak or move, all Bauby could do was look out on the world around him without any real hope of ever being able to communicate beyond a simple batting of the eyelid in response to a string of "yes or no" questions. However, thanks to the ingenuity of one of his therapists, Bauby eventually found a way - by painstakingly spelling out each word one letter at a time - to not only communicate fully with those around him but to actually dictate an entire best-selling book with the use of his one eye.

For the first twenty minutes or so, we see the world only as Bauby does, from the severely limited viewpoint of his one good eye, as he wakes up from his coma and begins to slowly realize what has happened to him. As the story progresses, Schnabel gradually allows us to escape Bauby's bodily prison and to see the events from a more objective angle. From that point on, we split our time fairly evenly between these two perspectives.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" could have been a mere "gimmick film" were it not for the tremendously revelatory nature of Bauby's tale. Through voiceover narration, we are able to enter into Bauby`s mind to explore the many thoughts and moods that enlighten or plague him. At first, of course, Bauby is filled with a sense of hopelessness and despair, telling his therapist early on that the one thing he wishes for above all else is death. However, as time goes on, Bauby begins to realize that, while his body may be trapped in a physical prison (a diving bell), his mind is now free to soar as never before into the realm of fantasy, imagination and memory (the butterfly). Forced to remove himself from the petty concerns that so often overtake us in our daily lives, Bauby is now able to contemplate the things that REALLY matter in life, principally, what it means to be a partner to his girlfriend, a father to his children, and a son to his aged father. As such, the movie becomes a celebration of the ability of the human spirit to endure and flourish under even the most trying of circumstances. The impressionism comes as Schnabel follows the course of Bauby's dreams, visions, memories and imaginings as they come pouring out in virtual stream-of-consciousness fashion, always backed up by Bauby's lyrical contemplation on what they mean to him both as an individual and as a part of the collective human race.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a movie overflowing with imagination and surprise, as when, out of nowhere, Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood insert a lovely little homage to the opening scene in "The 400 Blows." Conversely, the scene in which Bauby has his right eye sewn shut against his unheeded wishes is quite literally harrowing. Indeed, the movie is often at its most poignant in scenes where Bauby is completely at the mercy of what other people think is best for him, as when an unthinking orderly turns off a soccer match just as Bauby is really getting into it or a well-meaning therapist takes Bauby, an avowed atheist, to visit a Catholic priest. It is at times like these that he is closest to having his identity as an individual subsumed by his illness and the people around him.

Beyond the brilliant performances by Mathieu Amallic as Bauby, Max von Sydow as his 92-year-old father, and Emmanuelle Seigner as his longtime girlfriend, among others, special recognition must surely go to editor Juliette Welfling and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Spielberg's preferred cameraman) for the various miracles they have wrought in bringing this tightrope-walking tour-de-force to the screen.

Heartbreaking but never sentimental, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is that rare film that will haunt you for a long time after it's over and will make you look at life in a whole new way.
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on May 9, 2012
This is an amazing film experience. Julian Schnabel, the director, is also an artist and this movie shows off his talent for capturing beauty. The film is in French because it is about a real person who happened to be French and Schnabel recognized it would make more sense to maintain that identity. Plus French is a beautiful language that matches the gorgeous look and style of the film. Anyway, it is about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the French version of Elle magazine, who in the prime of his life has a stroke that causes him to be mute and paralyzed from the neck down. Doesn't sound too uplifting, does it? But it is...because the film shows flashbacks to his exciting life before the stroke and the people in the hospital are very loving and dedicated to getting him speaking again. The speech therapist and physical therapist are also drop dead gorgeous, which adds to his torment in the beginning but also makes them ideal characters for entering his dreams and imagination -- his best tools for maintaining the will to live in the early stages of therapy.

What makes the film so interesting (besides the amazing performance of lead actor Mathieu Amalric) is that in the beginning the viewer sees everything from Bauby's perspective. When he wakes up in the hospital, you are him looking at the faces that come up close to you so they can examine your body and check your progress. When Bauby blinks, you blink. When Bauby's eye is sewn up because it is in danger of becoming septic, you see it from his perspective. It is like your own eye is being stitched closed. Later in the film, you see Bauby's face and no longer from a first person perspective. But since you've virtually been him for the first 20 or so minutes of the film, you now are very connected to his character. I can't recommend this movie enough. It is stunning in its excellence.
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on April 15, 2011
A very moving and expertly crafted film. Too bad it derives its melodrama from fictionalized characters and scenes. Why not stick to Bauby's story and pull out the real drama that was his life? Read the book, and understand the man's actual story. Also, read the Salon article online (Feb 23, 2008) which tells how Bauby's family was upset with the director's distorted facts added for cinematic effect. The real story is better.
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on July 30, 2015
MUST WATCH THIS MOVIE! I know it's subtitled, but it's worth the watch. I saw this movie listed on a website for "Movies you must watch before you're 30" and I am very happy I did. What an amazing life story. When you find yourself getting depressed, you will often think back to this remarkable man and realize anything is possible to overcome.
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on July 4, 2016
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I had known about this film since roughly the time of its release in 2007, but resisted seeing it because of  the director, Julian Schnabel.  As a studio artist, I always found Schnabel’s work to be gimmicky and unrewarding and so — unfairly — I  was dismissive of his film work, as well.  Fortunately, I was encouraged to watch this film and rewarded in doing so  —  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is terrific, Schnabel’s direction is both sensitive and revelatory. 

The film appeared on actor Tom Hiddleston’s recommendations for his Tribeca Shortlist.  I have always found Hiddleston to be not just exceptionally talented but open-minded, intelligent and thoughtful, as well, and so — I put aside my own closed-mindedness and watched.  In fact, I have watched it twice. 

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly film is adapted from an unusual 1998 memoir — Jean-Dominique Bauby (editor-in-chief of Elle magazine) “wrote” this account of his stroke and subsequent “locked-in syndrome” via dictation — using the only part of his body he still had control over and use of: his left eye. 

The story is a compelling one and a seemingly “un-filmable” one, as well.  And yet, Schnabel achieves a beautiful, highly cinematic, deeply moving account.  The acting is uniformly strong (wonderful to see Max von Sydow as Bauby’s aging father) but it is the effective use of light/sound/music and above all camera that take this film a step — or several — further.  I will not discuss shot selection, camera angle, lighting, editing, etc since you will want to make this discovery for yourself.

A memorable film and a huge thank you to Mr Hiddleston.

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