Scaphandre et le Papillon
Directed By: Julien Schnabel
Release Date: May 23, 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Miramax Films (2007) (USA)
by Jay Blodgett
This film is a work of art and one of my favorite experiences
of the year. Director Julien Schnabel, screenwriter Ronald Harwood
and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have adapted Jean-Dominique
Bauby's memoir and created something so specifically cinematic,
it gave me visual goosebumps and emotionally choked me up, more
than once. Neither the synopsis, the press or, particularly the
lackluster poster, prepared me for the journey.
I was able to see this film recently at a special free screening
at the Rich Theatre, High Museum in Atlanta. The Diving Bell
and the Butterfly was the winner of the Best Director award
at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
the expressionistic opening credits, Schnabel opens the film by
being quite literal to the situation. However, he achieves it through
visually avant garde means. The opening sequence, in which Bauby
opens his eyes, is straight out of Stan Brakhage's experimental
work, or as he referred to it, "personal cinema." This
(unintentional?) homage to Brakhage's 'personal cinema' perfectly
frames the point-of-view that we will be experiencing for the majority
of the next two hours, both visually and poetically. Schnabel maintains
that first person POV almost relentlessly. He visually traps the
audience in the "paralyzed" frame, as is the character
trapped in his paralyzed body. Though the flashbacks and dream sequences
might have been meant as dramatic and visual relief from the extremity
of the POV, I for one was so emotionally involved in "being"
Bauby, that I found these moments to be more distracting and stylistically
disjointed. I was so fascinated by the cinematography and editing
(Juliette Welfling) involved in maintaining the first person, that
breaking away from it, in a cinematically conventional sense, also
broke me away from the unique visceral experience I felt when trapped
in Bauby's world.
Ronald Harwood's screenplay transcends a literal adaption of the
memoir and becomes an auditory meditation. The complexity of the
layering of language, provides a verbal soundtrack, as the repetition
of the alphabet (minor spoiler there) becomes a meditative drone
underscoring the scenes in which Bauby communicates with the world.
Harwood's gradual revelation of the physical appearance of the man
who was the editor of ELLE, to himself, is suspensefully
articulated. Harwood slowly introduces us to the exterior of Bauby
in almost the same way and pacing that a monster would be introduced
in a horror film.
The technical and artistic achievements that Schnabel and his crew created
nearly overshadow the performances. For the most part, the cast
is as much a technical part of realizing Schnabel's vision as anything
else in the production. Mathieu Amalric's performance as Bauby is
mostly narration. There can be an argument about the outrageous
challenge of portraying a character whose only movement is his left
eye. However, Amalric is given the opportunity of physical choices
during the flashbacks, where, as I stated earlier, these scenes
are almost so conventional that the thrill of the challenges during
his "present" are missing. However, Amalric does have
a couple scenes with the ever incredible Max Von Sydow as his father.
(How old is he?!)
The rest of the cast has the challenge of playing directly into
the camera. Emmanuelle Seigner plays the emotionally complicated
role of his partner and mother of his children. She carries the
responsibility of revealing the emotional life he lived before the
stroke. Marie-Josee Croze, as his speech therapist Henriette, has
the technical challenge of delivering the "alphabetic drone"
through out her scenes, yet maintaining an emotional connection,
which she succeeds at.
If there is anything a tad annoying, it is the sub-titling during
the exceptionally specific moments when he is communicating with
the outside world. Due to the requirements of translating letter
by letter, the language and subtitling are necessarily out of sync.
I would have preferred a literal subtitle of the letters, followed
by the English translation of the word.
Once the film enters the section of Bauby dictating his memoirs,
it focuses more on the extraordinary, if near miraculous achievement,
instead of the tedious, if not nearly excruciating process. However,
the outrageous cinematic technique, as well as the physical exertion
that created the memoir itself, is what grants forgiveness to the
simplistic, if not nearly trite, allusion to "the diving bell
and the butterfly."
more fascinating reviews, see
"Life with Movies and Maxxxxx" by Jay Blodgett