Why? This one is real and could really, really happen. Could? Did!
One ordinary day just a hair's breadth from Christmas, Jean-Do had a crippling stroke. He was 43 years old.
The film begins as Jean-Do is awakening from his Coma and looking around his blurry room as Medical Staff attempts to explain to him what is going on. And we're right there with him, of course, as director Julian Schnabel brings us inside Jean-Do's head for the entire beginning of the film. Bauby is told what he has been through and promptly answers every question he is asked, only to discover that nobody is hearing his responses. It becomes very clear that Jean-Do Bauby has awakened with "Locked-in Syndrome", making him completely unable to move anything except his left eye. He is told to blink once for "Yes" and twice for "No" as they attempt to gain more and more information from him. That, and only that, works. Bauby's frustration is palpable as the events proceed, mostly because at this point, we are Bauby, unable to move beyond his field of vision, unable to explore beyond his eye, unable to hear anything he doesn't hear. His narrative voice (which seems to come to us from within) covers everything else.
Quite a stretch of screen time goes by before we even get a glimpse of our lead Mathieu Amalric, who brings us Bauby. At first this view is just a brief glimpse in a mirror of a broken man. But as we're released from the prison of Bauby's head, we see more and more of just who he is and was. How do we do this? At first, only as he does. Bauby escapes from himself through memory and fantasy, sometimes taking the surreal world he's trapped in and making it even more surreal in his freedom. What we find is a handsome, virile man whose jet-setting lifestyle put him along side models, photographers, mistresses and party goers. He's involved with the mother of his children, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), but also has a mistress named Ines (Agathe de la Fontaine). The only true constant in his life is his father (Max von Sydow), whom he calls "Papinou".
But then the stark reality of the present climbs right back in. Now his life is filled with visits from Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais), who is not nearly as nice to look at as his nurse Marie (Olatz Lopez Garmendia) or his speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), both of whom soon show up in his dreams too. He gets visitors, like his friend Laurent (Isaach De Bankol¨¦) and Roussin (Niels Arestrup), with whom he shares a bizarre connection from the past. However, he won't see his children, basically because his main wish is to die as soon as possible.
The film takes us through much of his stay and therapy and slips back and fourth into his dreams and fantasies as it does. Bauby's isolation is exemplified in scenes displaying him in his wheelchair on a platform in the middle of the ocean while his family plays on the beach. Even more had-hitting is the image of the motionless Diving Suit in the murky water, with an umoving Jean-Do inside. This isn't exactly a "Diving Bell" (which is more of a primitive submarine) but it works in its frustrating wonder.
To explore the "Butterfly" portion of the title, the film details Bauby's decision to write his memoirs. Through his work with Henriette, he is able to begin communicating in words, though he can't write or speak. This is done using a specialized technique in which the alphabet is recited in order of letters most frequently used in French spelling, with Jean-Do blinking his left eye when the right letter is reached. From this point, Jean-Dominique Bauby is again a writer. Therefore he decides to write his memoir with the help of his newly hired transcriber Claude (Anne Consigny). That Memoir was published as Le Scaphandre et le papillon and it serves as the basis for Ronald Harwood's screenplay.
Quick note... none of the above is a "Spoiler", as all of this can be gleaned from the Book Jacket or the Movie Preview. In truth, there is so much more to this (by aaron pruitt). One might say the story is just beginning.
The rest of the film continues the concepts of merging Bauby's dreams with his reality and his past with his present, all while he is writing a book using his eyelid recitation. This can be maddening to watch, but also very rewarding and life affirming at the same time.
It took a lot of courage to make this film, from all involved. Amalric suffers emotionlessly through a series of indignities with essentially no movement at all, then is suddenly (in dream and memory) an incredibly lively and full fledged character. Meanwhile his voice ties the whole thing together. One interesting thing about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is that it is an American film. Although made in conjunction with a series of French companies, the film was produced by Kennedy/ Marshall (specifically Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik) and directed by American Julian Schnabel. The original plan was for this film to star Johnny Depp, who had to drop out due to commitments to the third Pirates of the Caribbean flick. Further, there was even studio pressure (from Path¨¦ Renn Productions, no less) to film the movie in English for maximum marketability. Reportedly it was Schnabel who insisted on keeping the film pure and true to the book as well as real life by keeping it in the original language, going so far as to learn French to direct the film.
Of course, this spelling-specific film can be odd when watched in its subtitled form, especially for those who also speak some French. The language is, of course, translated for the subtitles, but so are the letters spelling each word as they are recited. For example, when putting the word "Now" together, Claude or Henriette might spell out "M - A - N-" for "Maintenant", but the letters within the subtitles are "N - O - W". There's no easy way to do this, of course, but it does tend to confuse one way or the other.
Special mention should be made to Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who does an incredible job of portraying the surreal, dreamlike moments in Bauby's life, along with the blurry, confused moments of Bauby's bodily captivity, along with the stark reality of Bauby's outsides. Kaminski and Schnabel create a visual experience almost equal to the emotionally engrossing tale with visual metaphors and surprising mood changes. Bravo.
The real tale, and thus the real Kudos, all belong to the real Bauby, however, and regardless of what one might think of him as a philandering playboy, it's hard not to care for the guy as a human being. Further, it takes an actor up to the task to not only bring Jean-Do Bauby to the screen but to do him Justice. Second choice or not, Mathieu Amalric does just that and has done a remarkable job.
Four and One Half Stars out of Five for Le Scaphandre et le papillon. It's a strange film, a remarkable film, a surreal film and a strikingly realistic film all at the same time. It's also quite frightening in many parts, but manages to uplift the viewer at the same time. This one probably isn't for kids with its nudity, profanity and sex, but it's certainly for anyone of age who can enjoy a high quality film with high quality acting, directing, cinematography and music (not just from composer Paul Cantelon, but also U2, Joe Strummer and more). Open your eyes and see it, but if you're like me, be warned... it may cause you to sleep with one eye open.
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