One 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.
Watch the trailer here.
All images sourced from the amazing Evan E. Richards.
Watch this film at Amazon!