Movie Review: The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffers a brain hemorrhage resulting in “shut-in syndrome,” wherein he can control only the blinking of one eye. A seemingly endless gaggle of hot young nurses help him communicate and he eventually dictates his autobiography, from which the film takes its title. The real lesson: Get sick in France.


Director Julian Schnabel takes a great risk by presenting the majority of this true story from Bauby’s perspective, relying on voiceover to convey his thoughts. But these potential gimmicks work beautifully, as Bauby’s focus shifts from mourning to appreciation of beauty and the exploration of his imagination and memory. Schnabel’s painterly nature comes through in pretty but very unnecessary montages of garden landscapes, butterflies, glaciers melting, women’s hair in the wind. These chunks of visuality lend nothing to the story and detract from the ironic real action: the guy who can’t move. The soundtrack too feels mix-tapey and dominant, much like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette; as if Schnabel had the songs picked out before he ever started filming.


Luckily, Schnabel’s brilliant casting compensates for his shortcomings. In the very definition of a nuanced performance, Mathieu Amalric is truly moving as Bauby. Emmanuelle Seigner is wonderful as Bauby’s estranged wife; she is at once sympathetic but maintains a pettiness and jealous nature that collides with the saintliness that typically comes with roles such as hers. Max von Sydow lends subtle power to his role as Bauby’s father, himself on the brink of senility. But the real breakout star here is Marie-Josee Croze as the speech therapist who gets Bauby talking and keeps him going. She is charming, endearing, and strong: More, please.


Grade: A


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