The Diving Bell And The Butterfly


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
"Truly cutting-edge cinema, daring and imaginative, quite unlike anything else you'll see this year."

In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle France, suffered a stroke which put him in a coma for three weeks and left him almost completely paralysed. Still in full possession of his mental faculties, he was a victim of what is known as locked-in syndrome - he could observe the world around him but was unable to participate in it. However, Bauby was still able to move his left eye, and by a painfully slow process of blinking to indicate letter choice, he was able to spell out words, to communicate, and ultimately to write his memoirs.

There are many film narratives in which an interesting life story is ended by abruptly acquired disability. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is something quite different. Although there are some flashbacks, this is primarily the story of Bauby's experience after he became incapacitated, beginning with the moment he first opened his eye.

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It's necessarily slow and tortuous (it's not a film for impatient viewers) but it's a powerful story, a fascinating insight into extreme human experience and a testament to the fact that Bauby did not cease to be an complex and passionate individual when he ceased to be 'normal'. No effort has been made to sanitise his bitterness and frustration, yet the experience is alleviated somewhat for the viewer by his dry wit. Even in this condition, he's a charismatic man, and he continues to find himself surrounded by beautiful young women. As she painstakingly takes down the dictation of his book, publisher's assistant Claude begins to fall in love with him. But Bauby's experience has made him rethink his relationships with women and he gradually finds himself less willing to simply let fate take its course.

In December 2006 I suffered a stroke myself. I was in a coma for eight days and, as I slowly emerged from it, there were moments when I thought I might find myself in Bauby's position. This film was so accurate in its recreation of that experience that at times I found it very hard to watch.

It's a testament to the brilliance of Bauby's writing that he was able to convey what he went through so effectively and in such detail, and Julian Schnabel's direction is inspired. This is by no means a dull film. Once it gets going - once Bauby starts to move beyond his initial panic and despair - it blossoms into a poetic voyage through memory and imagination, a sensual journey in which Bauby uses the power of his mind to liberate himself from his surroundings. Though he feels as if he is trapped inside a diving bell, he can nonetheless fly like a butterfly through all the landscapes he has ever known or dreamed of. In one early scene he is visited by a friend who was held hostage in Beirut, and they consider how it is possible to use the imagination to resist insanity and hold onto what is human.

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is a truly cutting-edge piece of cinema, daring and imaginative, quite unlike anything else you'll see this year. It's an invitation to find a still place, sitting in the dark, and let the mind wander - and isn't that, in the end, what cinema is all about?

Reviewed on: 30 Jan 2008
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The memoirs of a man who awoke from a coma to discover he was completely paralysed apart from his left eye.
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Read more The Diving Bell And The Butterfly reviews:

Chris *****
Daniel Hooper ****1/2

Director: Julian Schnabel

Writer: Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Neils Arestrup, Jean-Pierre Cassel

Year: 2007

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: France

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