Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

It's a good movie, but I've been holding off in reviewing it until I could decide whether it was a truly great movie or if what felt like flaws in my first viewing would linger in my head. And like I said, I like this movie - I like it a lot - but it's not perfect.

Julian Schnabel's film is the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, struck down by a cataclysmic stroke in the prime of his life. Bauby was diagnosed with 'Locked-In Syndrome', finding himself completely paralyzed except for his left eye and eyelid, only able to communicate by blinking. The story unfolds from Bauby's perspective as he tries to cope with what's happened to him, coupled with flashbacks of his family and love life and fantasy sequences.

Julian Schnabel clearly identifies with Bauby as a successful bon vivant with big appetites for life and women, working in a glamourous industry (Bauby was editor of French Elle magazine; Schnabel was a world-famous artist before he moved into filmmaking) and as such, there's an unavoidable sentimentalization of Bauby's pre-stroke life. Schnabel makes it clear that Bauby wasn't a saint, that he had difficulties staying faithful in relationships and shirked his duties as a father, but Schnabel never really takes him to task for these personal flaws, apparently deciding that the stroke was punishment enough. It's not a major flaw in the movie but my personal preference would have been for Schnabel to not soften his character and his flaws quite so much. As a comparison, Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot offers a character in a similar situation who's still honestly presented as a dick. This aspect of the movie conforms to the standard Hollywood movie template regarding the handicapped, where a crippling injury or disease becomes inherently ennobling.

What marks the difference between My Left Foot and Diving Bell is directorial inventiveness and first-person immersion into Bauby's situation. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is essentially a co-director of this film, putting the audience directly into Bauby's head for the first act of the film. It's a dazzling, disorienting experience - we watch through his eye, but are unable to move or interact with the world we see, just as Bauby was. Ultimately it's this tactic that makes the film succeed - it doesn't matter who Bauby was before his stroke. When watching the movie, he's us, and we're him, and the journey that proceeds from that point is invigorating.

I need to make sure that I emphasize that Kaminski's cinematography is outstanding, some of the best of his career, and that the performances, especially those of Mathieu Amalric and Max Von Sydow, are excellent. it's a beautiful movie, with several heartbreaking scenes (a late one in which Bauby's wife tells him she can't stand to visit him in the hospital is especially painful). It's a beautiful movie, just not a perfect one.


cjkennedy said...

But the milkiness!! The horror!!!

I think I forgive Diving Bell some of the flaws you rightfully ascribe to it because it simply shouldn't have worked as a movie. When I read a description of it, I'm tempted to run away from it screaming. It sounds pretentious and unbearable, yet on the screen it works beautifully.

You're right to single out Kaminski's contribution to the success of the film, as much as I liked all of Deakins work, especially in Jesse James, Kaminski's cinematography was so obviously essential to the telling of this story that he deserves extra credit.

Having said that, a lot of credit should go to Ron Harwood's screenplay. If I remember the Q&A at AFI accurately, it was largely Harwood's idea to tackle the story from inside Bauby's head.

Interesting that you mention My Left Foot as well because I just watched it the other night for the first time. I'd avoided it all these years as Oscar bait, but There Will Be Blood inspired me to go back and look at the fine work of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Noah said...

I think you're dead-on with this one, Jeff. I think a large part of my problem with the film was the tediousness of it. I understand the point of showing us how difficult it was for him to communicate, but the endless recitation of the alphabet got to be a bit trying to sit through.

I don't know if I'd give too much credit to Harwood, CJ, because I think a lot of the material could come across as corny on the page, but the acting really brings it life and Schnabel never lets it veer into sentimentality. But, between this and The Pianist, I think he's atoned sufficiently for Love in the Time of Cholera and Oliver Twist and for killing Cry the Beloved Country.

Jeff McMahon said...

Noah, I'm a little confused- I didn't mention 'tediousness' anywhere in my review. If anything, I wish there had been a little more time spent in really experiencing how excrutiating the communication process had to be for Bauby and how patient he had to learn to be.

My understanding is that Kaminski himself served as camera operator for a huge chunk of the movie, meaning that for all intents, he _was_ Bauby in those scenes.

Maybe I'm naive, but it seems to me that first-person is obviously the best way to tell the movie, but that only an acclaimed screenwriter could convince a studio to make such a movie.

Noah said...

I just think we get the frustrating he's feeling about having to communicate this way in the first few scenes in which he's being taught to blink his words out. I think it winds up stifling some of the emotion in later scenes. But I was just saying that I agree with your assessment that the film is something to admire and enjoy, but it's difficult to fall in love with.

I didn't realize that Kaminski was operating the camera for so much of the movie. Another reason why he's a genius, contrary to what Wells thinks.

Jeff McMahon said...

I see what you mean, Noah.
And let's just assume from now on that Wells doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to technical elements and move on. All of his opinions are increasingly based on minor things that annoy him, like the 'milky-white' thing for Kaminski, which got a lot of reactions after he mentioned it, = bigger hit count, = keep mentioning it whenever he gets a chance.

Actionman said...

The film is a masterwork; I think it's the best film of 2007. My favorite film is still Jesse James though.