The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” rolls hand-written opening credits on a montage of x-rays accompanied by “La Mer,” a French rendition of “Beyond the Sea.” This is the charming if incongruent beginning to a story of oppressive isolation. Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric, “Munich”), an upper-class Parisian hedonist and editor of Elle, suffers a “cerebrovascular accident” resulting in paralysis of his entire body, save for his left eye.

This dissonance between introduction and theme is not disruptive by any means – nor unintentional – and is recurrent throughout the film, as the memories and imagination of Bauby span far beyond the confines of his Berck-sur-mer hospital room.

In the immediate aftermath of his stroke, and the sequential beginning of the film, a first-person perspective indicates Bauby’s struggle in opening and focusing his one good eye. Beautifully shot, this scene, and many others, employs the use of frequent cuts, overexposed light and a general lack of focus in order to capture Bauby’s new, ailed circumstances.

In order to communicate, Bauby’s speech pathologist acts as an amanuensis, listing off the alphabet in order of letter frequency until Bauby blinks, indicating the intended letter. Since Bauby is unable to speak, a voice-over narration conveys his more personal thoughts to the audience, including the guilty pleasure he gets from being washed like a baby and his propensity for the breasts of his orderlies.

Between the mammaries of one his orderlies hangs a cross, one of the many lingering allusions to religion and spirituality. When taken to a nearby church, despite his insistence upon secularity, he smarmily indicates to the priest that many gods around the world are praying for him. We are then transported to Lourdes as Bauby recalls a tumultuous visit with an ex-girlfriend. Emotionally distant and touristically disengaged, he is no doubt selfish and inconsiderate, though, sadly, his situation is not without empathy or sympathy.

Bauby’s father Papinou (Max Von Sydow, “The Seventh Seal”), his children and former common-law wife, Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner, “The Ninth Gate”), also enter the story, both through memories and visits. Papinou, also emotionally disinclined, is in his nineties and suffers from a similar sense of isolation as his age and feeble condition prevent him from leaving his apartment. When he calls Bauby for the first time since the stroke, unsure of what to say or how to say it, Papinou breaks down in what is one of the few overt displays of emotion in the film. It is also one of the more stirring moments of a touching film.

As the film progresses, Bauby, through his speech pathologist, contacts a publishing house with which he has a book contract. Unsure of how to respond to Bauby’s request to fulfill the contract, the publishers send a stenographer, Claude (Anne Consigny), to take laborious dictation through Bauby’s blinks. The resulting book is “Le Scaphandre et le papillon,” the autobiography upon which the film is based.

With respect to the source material, the film’s sole shortcoming is its inability to adequately articulate Bauby’s thoughts. His wit and inherent knack for crafting beautiful sentences is muted in the film, simplified for the sake of a subtitle-reading audience.

Directed by Julian Schnabel, whose primary artistic endeavors are in painting, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a beautiful, deliberately crafted work of art that permeates the sensibility of true solitude.

The Diving Bell

Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 stars

Michigan Theatre


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