Title: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Julian Schnabel
Screenwriters: Ronald Harwood
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze
For a while, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a triumph of form over substance: a film whose “gimmick” — showing us the world solely from the point of view of the protagonist, who is paralyzed head to toe and able to move only his one good eye — lets it avoid many of the emotional pitfalls that usually haunt this type of movie, evoking empathy rather than pity. The first forty-five minutes don’t present anything earth-shatteringly profound, but their portrayal of the mundane aspects of Jean-Dominique’s plight — the casually insensitive doctors, the well-intentioned (not to mention hot) therapists, the regrets, both quotidian (he didn’t return a call) and crushing (he didn’t get a chance to say enough to his wife and kids)n — is uncannily effective.
Those “minor” moments (though to call them “minor” is absurd) are far more potent than the numerous emotional epiphanies that follow. At the end of the first act, director Julian Schnabel abandons the first-person perspective and focuses squarely on Jean-Do’s grotesquely distorted mug. The film immediately becomes more traditional — instead of putting us in the figurative shoes of the successful magazine editor destroyed by illness, it has us regard him sadly and shake our heads at his fate.
To its credit, Diving Bell doesn’t wallow in misery — Jean-Do’s state, both physical and emotional, improves pretty consistently throughout the film. But Schnabel still ends up presenting a totally conventional tale of perseverence, strength, the triumph of the human spirit, etc., etc. It’s reasonably affecting stuff, but I found myself pining for both the formal audacity and emotional pull of the dynamite opening.
The fact that we’ve seen this story before isn’t a terrible thing in itself, but aspects of it turn out to be self-indulgent an even kind of boring. Having mastered a communication system devised by his therapist (it involves an interpreter repeatedly reading a list of letters in order of frequency of use, with Jean-Do blinking at the letter he wants — one wonders why they didn’t just use Morse Code), Jean-Do decides to write a book about his struggles, and much of the second hour is dominated by “lyrical,” portentous narration from the eventual masterpiece. (Did I mention this is a true story?) Schnabel — a painter before turning to directing — does his best to keep things interesting with some genuinely beautiful imagery, but he can’t keep the film from trending toward the mawkish. Indeed, his visuals are so confident, so moving, that I wished he had truly taken charge rather than being led around by a screenplay that can’t cut the mustard.