The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007): “Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed: my imagination and my memory.”

diving_bell_and_the_butterfly_xlgOne of the best book-to-film translations in recent times, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007, dir. Julian Schnabel) tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who, after suffering a stroke that damaged his brain stem, is completely paralysed except for the movement in his left eyelid. He is diagnosed with locked-in syndrome, where an individual is physically completely paralysed, but on the inside, psychologically, he is completely active and alive. Jean-Dominique (or, Jean-Do to his friends) is initially completely overwhelmed with this adversity, but with the help of his determined speech pathologist (Marie-Josée Croze) he learns to communicate via blinking his eye. He begins writing a book about his experiences with locked-in syndrome, using just his eye to tell his story.

The film is a mixture of wonderful and horrifying, telling Jean-Do’s story in a cut-up narrative as he writes his book and reflects on his memories; the hilarious moments, the parts of his life he regrets, the mundane things he isn’t able to do anymore. I recently read the book and was amazed at how accurately the film captured its spirit. Mathieu Amalric puts in a stellar performance as Jean-Do. Ultimately, if you haven’t seen this yet, you must.

The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is simply amazing. The visuals are at times blurred and at odd angles when seen from Jean-Do’s perspective, with a focus on up-close shots of the faces of people he is interacting with. The moments that are seen from Jean-Do’s perspective can be heartbreaking as we see the screen blurring and clearing – tears building up and flowing from his eye. These moments can also be very confronting as we see his bad eye being sewn shut after the blinking muscle has been paralysed. The cinematography seeks honesty at all times and does not shy away from these confronting aspects of Jean-Do’s life in the hospital. The colours are vibrant yet muted, and the visuals can be unfocused at times. The cinematography is stunning and seeks to put the viewer within the viewpoint of Jean-Do: claustrophobic, trapped, unable to move when seen from his perspective as a patient with locked-in syndrome, but fluid and dreamlike when watching him as an able-bodied man, as if his previous life is now left to the land of memories and dreams.

I would highly recommend watching this film as even though it may initially seem depressing, it is actually incredibly life-affirming. Even though Jean-Do is paralysed physically, his internal world is as active as it has ever been. Jean-Do keeps his humanity in the most difficult and undignified of experiences, and his spirit is unquenchable. It is a beautiful film not only visually, but also thematically, and is acted to perfection. Without further ado, here are some of my favourite shots from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

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4.5/5
Watch the trailer here.

All images sourced from the amazing Evan E. Richards.

Watch this film at Amazon!

21 comments

  1. I’ve always wanted to see this. Excellent review!

    1. Thanks! 🙂 It’s an amazing film, you should definitely check it out!

  2. I love this film and I’m happy to see it get more praise! The life-affirming aspect is what keeps me coming back because it is like a call to live life to the fullest and very beautiful – points you made very eloquently! Great review.

    1. Thanks! 🙂 Totally agreed. Such a beautiful film.

  3. Great review. I’m not sure I see it as life-affirming, but it was so incredibly honest and so powerful. So beautifully shot. Was there many differences between the film and the book?

    1. Thanks Alex. 🙂 Agreed – the film is so honest and powerful. There weren’t too many differences between the film and book, I think the film contained everything from the book since the book is only small. But it also expanded the universe of the book a bit as well. Probably one of my favourite book adaptations, now that I’ve read the source material!

  4. A gorgeous film, one that I sort of avoid watching again in case it tarnishes my wonderful first viewing.

    1. Sometimes films really are that amazing!

  5. I love this film, I couldn’t describe it as well as you could. You’ve captured the feeling of it so well

    1. Thanks so much Mikey! 🙂

  6. This is one of those cases where I MUST read the book first. Love all of the screenshots that you selected.

    1. Thanks Alina! 🙂 You definitely need to read the book! It is absolutely beautiful. Don’t read it on public transport though, unless you want to have a bit of a cry in front of strangers.

  7. Beautiful shots – I might come back and pilfer one of them for my Facebook cover photo at some point!

    1. Please feel free! 🙂

  8. I have always wanted to see this I need to check it out.

    1. Definitely! I would love to hear your thoughts on it!

  9. I’m not sure if I have heard of this before or not. But I do like Mathieu Amalric from the one or two roles I’ve seen. While this movie sort of has that potential to be a depressing drag, it sounds like quite the uplifting tale and if it’s a successful adaptation of a book, I’m even more sold. That part is really, really hard to do.

    1. You definitely have to see this! Initially the concept of a paralysed stroke victim attempting to communicate with the outside world is really upsetting, however the film (and book!) does morph into something quite optimistic, but not in a cheesy or dismissive way. Mathieu Amalric is amazing. All in all it’s probably one of my favourite film adaptations of all time.

  10. Such an amazing movie which immediately made me buy the book. Wonderfully shot and a stunning story.

    1. Did you read the book? I loved it!

      1. Yeah, I loved the book as well.

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