The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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This review was written for the festival screening of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." 

CANNES -- Director Julian Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have performed a small miracle in adapting for the screen Jean-Dominique Bauby's autobiography "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Not, of course, as much as the one it took for the former "Elle" editor to write the book when he was paralyzed from head to toe and could communicate only by blinking his left eye.

But their film does justice to the enormous courage and determination of the man and the caring patience of those who helped him. Taking a very different approach to the award-winning 2004 Spanish film "The Sea Inside," in which Javier Bardem played a suicidal quadriplegic, the movie boasts an equally fine lead performance, by Mathieu Amalric, and matches that film's broad appeal.

A vivacious and charismatic magazine editor, Bauby is stricken at 43 with the cerebro-vascular incident that first plunges him into a coma and then leaves him with what is called "locked-in syndrome." His brain works perfectly but his body doesn't, save the left eye. It is from that eye's point-of-view that the film is almost entirely told and Janusz Kaminski's cinematography does marvels in suggesting the suffocating horror of Bauby's predicament and the wide variety of images that bring him joy and hope.

A brief period of self-pity is overcome by the painstaking attention of his therapists, Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) and Marie (Olatz Lopez Garmendia), who develop the pattern whereby he blinks at letters of the alphabet in order to form words and then sentences. Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his three children, whom he had abandoned shortly before he had his stroke, also nurses him devotedly. Among many scenes of tender mercy, she translates when Bauby's new lover calls to speak to him only to say that she cannot bear to see him in his current state. Celine must translate his blinking reply: "Each day I wait for you."

There are also heartbreaking scenes between Bauby and his aged father, played with great compassion by Max von Sydow. Father and son are friends, and in flashbacks and a phone call made difficult by Bauby's condition and his dad's forgetfulness, their affection is beautifully conveyed.

There is much humor in the film as the stricken man never loses his wry sense of what fate brings. He realizes that two essentials in his makeup are not paralyzed: his imagination and his memory. He uses both to escape from the deep-sea diving bell that he pictures himself trapped in so he may soar like a butterfly.

Guilt plagues him over his inattention to his children and such things as failing to return a phone call to a man named Roussin (Niels Arestrup), to whom he gave his seat on a plane that was hijacked. The man spent four years as a hostage but he visits Bauby not to chide him for his negligence but to tell how he survived his own locked-in hell.

It's a theme that Schnabel develops throughout the film and renders with remarkable subtlety. He is aided greatly by a fine cast, especially Almaric, Seigner and von Sydow, and by Paul Cantelon's delicate piano score. The soundtrack also features great music by such artists as Tom Waits, Nino Rota and Lou Reed. It begins and ends with the song "La Mer" and that much-heard melody becomes haunting all over again.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY
Pathe Distribution
Pathe Renn Prods., France 3 Cinema
Credits:
Director: Julian Schnabel
Screenwriter: Ronald Harwood
Based on the book by: Jean-Dominique Bauby
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Pierre Grunstein, Jim Lemley
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminskin
Production designers: Michel Eric, Laurent Ott
Music: Paul Cantenon
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Cast:
Jean-Dominique: Mathieu Amalric
Celine Desmoulin: Emmanuelle Seigner
Henriette Durand: Marie-Josee Croze
Claude: Anne Consigny
Docteur Lepage: Patrick Chesnais
Roussin: Niels Arestrup
Marie Lopez: Olatz Lopez Garmendia
Father Lucien: Jean-Pierre Cassel
Josephine: Marina Hands
Papinou: Max von Sydow
Laurent: Isaach de Bankole
Running time -- 112 minutes
No MPAA rating

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