Before The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was released in 2007 I had followed much of the production news surrounding it. I didn’t know a lot about it, but I had watched the trailer on repeat about 15 times, and knew that I had to see it upon its release. As is the case with so many film I’ve done this with (typically foreign films or smaller releases), once they were scantily released across Canada, and fell out of the public eye, my exposure to them ceased and, to me, they were lost forever. Well, perhaps not forever, but for a few years anyways. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was, indeed, lost to me until I took on this project. And now, finally, it’s been found.
There’s a strange beauty to this film, full of seemingly dark visuals and depressing subject matter. Though heavy, it manages to avoid being macabre and morbid, somehow finding a hopefulness deep within. This is the story of a man who suffered a stroke, and awoke from the resulting coma to find himself paralyzed throughout his entire being, save for his right eye. Christy Brown ain’t got shit on Jean-Do Bauby!
Nearly the entirety of the first 40 minutes of the film are shown from the perspective of Jean-Dominique, with brief moments of escape through his minds’ eye and his memories. A constant recurring image throughout the film is Jean-Do (Mathieu Amalric) floating in a seemingly endless cloudy sea, trapped, motionless, in a diving bell. He silently screams, thrashing his head around within the diving suit, body entirely motionless, unheard by the world above.
There are certain moments within the film’s first 40 minutes that make you want to weep for Bauby, namely when his only good eye succumbs to an infection. The mandatory resulting treatment is torturous.
In a moving performance, Max Von Sydow plays Bauby’s father, tenderly referred to as Papinou. After Bauby finds himself trapped in his own skin, he shares a moment with his father via the telephone and his translator/speech therapist. Trapped in his apartment, Papinou is too old and his body too full of aches and pains to leave and venture to his disabled son’s bedside. The anguish in both Von Sydow’s voice and Amalric’s face had me literally sobbing in my chair: I simply could not contain myself.
Amalric’s performance, simplistic and understated to say the very least, is none the less exceptionally powerful. He gives a remarkable turn as Bauby, his voice guiding you through a maze of thoughts surprisingly well balanced given the state he found himself in. His sense of humor remains in tact, and it is clear that his sex drive has remained unchanged (though his ability to act on such drives is clearly infringed upon).
This is not a warm and fuzzy film, but it leaves you with a warm sensation through your core. The best way I can think to describe it is like the tannins of a fine wine: it leaves you feeling satiated, needing little more than the comfort of your own thoughts to drift you into a sea of deep contemplation. However, it does not leave you contemplating the inner workings of the world, or its injustices. There is a strange sense of acceptance, and peace about this film. It is, as I’ve described other films before it, pleasantly melancholic.
It is magnificently shot, with stunning cinematography, a perfectly selected and orchestrated score, and an emotionally invested and dedicated cast. Such a film is a gem of the early 2000s, as this level quality within the past decade has, indeed, been a rare gift. This is a treasure.
This post was originally published on my tumblr on December 19, 2011.