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Movie Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is arresting. For one hour and fifty-two minutes, it cuffs you to your seat and leaves you virtually incapable of movement and/or speech. Likewise, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly makes your mind race and your imagination roll, as you place yourself in the chair of its “locked-in” lead.

After suffering a massive stroke in 1995, the editor-in-chief of French Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathiew Amalric), awakens with a condition called locked-in syndrome. Paralyzed from head to toe, “Jean-Do” realizes that he cannot move, speak, or swallow. Considering Jean-Do is still mentally alert, he uses his only unaffected muscle – his left eyelid – to blink once for “yes” and twice for “no.” That is, until an amanuensis named Henriette Durand (Marie-Josée Croze) teaches Jean-Do an extended means of communication.

By repeating each letter of the alphabet in order of frequency of use and having Jean-Do blink when she says the letter of his choosing, Henriette gets Jean-Do to speak. In patiently replicating this process over and over again, Jean-Do is able to form words and even sentences.

As Jean-Do adjusts his mindset from self-pitying to accepting, his dictating assistant Claude Mendibil (Ann Consigny) records his every word. The result is a memoir of Jean-Do’s everyday events and fantasies titled "Le Scaphandre et le papillion" ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly").

In what follows, the audience witnesses Jean-Do greeting visitors and getting a bath. More contentedly, we observe Jean-Do celebrating Father’s Day and seeing the mother of his children, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), visit often. Most joyfully, we watch his memories play out and his mind's eye invent out-of-this-world occurrences.

For the first 30 minutes of film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is primarily told from the first-person viewpoint of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathiew Amalric). The audience sees the world as he sees it — with blurred vision, tears, and darkness once his right eye is sewn shut. This alone is a testament to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s brilliance.

Furthermore, Texan director Julian Schnabel makes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a masterpiece by literally depicting a diving bell (an airtight underwater diving apparatus) imprisoning Bauby as it sinks to the ocean floor. Simultaneously, he shows scenes of a gracious butterfly fluttering among flowers. By splicing these contrasting images together throughout the running time, Schnabel not only provides the meaning to the title, but also hones in on both the drowning effect of Bauby’s total paralysis and the lifting up of his spirit via his free-flying imagination.

Thank goodness Schnabel was placed in the director’s chair; apart from his acclaimed direction, he also convinced the studio to change the language of the production from English to French to authenticate Bauby’s life. In addition, thank goodness scheduling conflicts with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End caused an abandonment of the American version starring Johnny Depp.

While most expression is verbal, Jean-Do was able to miraculously deliver an eloquent text through the opening and closing of only one eyelid. Read the book. See this flawless, inspired motion picture. Your outlook on and appreciation of life will change forever.

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About Brandon Valentine