The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

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Year: 2007

Writer: ronald harwood (screenplay), jean-dominique bauby (novel)

Director: julian shnabel

Budget: ?

Domestic Gross: $170 321 (as of december 9th, 2007)

in 1995, at the age of 43, jean-dominique bauby (jean-do) had a debilitating stroke that left him completely paralyzed except for his left eye.  over the course of the next two years he used that left eye to blink out his memoir, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, taking us into the head and dreams and memories of a man 'locked-in'.  that book is, obviously, the basis of the new film, of the same name, from director julian shnabel.

so how do you make a movie about a guy who can only blink his eye?  it might not sound like great foder for such a visual medium, but shnabel and his great director of photography, janusz kaminski, made it one (and both of them picked up awards at cannes as well).

the first scenes take place from jean-do's pov and put us right there as he (and in essence we) wake up in a hospital. at first he tries to talk to the doctors, but soon realizes that what he is saying is only in his head and they cannot hear him (the shock and frustration i felt at that moment was instant).  then when they sew up his right eye and we see it from his pov, we get an even more direct sense of how closed off and 'locked-in' he really is (the doctors call his situation 'locked-in').  then as we move away from the pov we get our first look at him from another perspective.  the film uses both visual techniques to tell the story and does it so very well.

the story is moving and interesting and the writing is smart and absorbing as we go inside his head and his memories, but also sit and watch the minutia of what his present situation is truly like:  not being able to talk or move and having to blink as someone reads off letters until he has spelled out words he wants to say. 

it made me immediately think of a great book i read many years ago called Johnny Got His Gun by dulton trumbo, written in 1938.  in the book, the main character is a man who has had his legs and arms blown off by a mine during the war and is just lying in a hospital bed.  he has also been made blind, def and mute by his accident.  but i digress.

this is by far shnabels best film to date. his previous films include Basquiat and Before Night Falls.  i saw Basquiat so long ago and don't really remember it, but i did feel that Before Night Falls fell way short of the greatness of the book on which it was based (needless to say it is one of my favorite books, so maybe i am a little biased).  it did look good and featured a great performance from javier bardem, but it really lacked some important parts that made the novel so powerful.  it was like he was going for the essence of the story, but in so doing just missed a few things.

now, i haven't read the novel, and maybe i would think different of the movie if i had, but in a year that has seen some really good films, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is another one that stands out.