“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”: Effective…but Great?

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

***There are minor spoilers throughout as this turned out to be more of a critique than a review.***

I’ve come to a conclusion over my limited years of movie viewing that there can be a difference, albeit a very abstract one, between a great movie and an effective movie. Both categories share similar qualities which makes it difficult to tell them apart sometimes. They share the skillful touch of a true craftsman, an absorbing musical score, lush visuals and fine performances, but in the end sometimes even the greatest movies lack in their effectiveness and vice versa effective movies aren’t always great ones.

For a great movie to be ineffective, the third act sometimes fizzles away, or it could simply be that certain elements don’t gel so the emotional connection is lost. A great movie might play more to the intellectual side of the viewer, relying on the audience to fill in the banks, consider this years Charlie Wilson’s War or perhaps There Will Be Blood (great movies, but effective only to a point.) On the other hand an effective movie will through the use of certain creative techniques force you to feel what the main character is going through. Sometimes the method used can be tedious, other times overwhelming and many times exhausting, but when done well can envelope you into the mindset of it’s protagonist. Of course when these two elements are combined you have an Oscar winning film…(right?) I would say Zodiac and No Country for Old Men fit into this category.

Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an incredibly effective film, but I would argue against its true greatness. It follows the life of former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) between the moment he wakes up from a coma to find that the only part of his body he can move is his left eye (called lock-in syndrome) to the publication of his book which the movie is based on.

Just from the fact that the book was written by the subject of the movie tells us that he succeeds in overcoming his problem. So instead of lingering on the over coming all odds cliches Schnabel focuses 75% of the film on getting us to understand what Bauby’s limited life was like by showing us his events as if we were witnessing everything through Bauby’s left eye; we see the world as he does.

While Schnabel had to dictate his vision coherently to his collaborators, the true story tellers here are the director of photography (Spielberg mainstay Janusz Kaminski) and the editor (Juliette Welfling.) The camera pans and tilts awkwardly, the editing cuts and flashes, sometimes only catching glimpses of the world around him. It’s a claustrophobic experience. It agitates. It’s also mesmerizing. We understand the character’s situation immediately. The first glimpse of him is through his own eyes as he sees a reflection on an uneven surface. He obviously isn’t pleased with his plight.

Though his affliction is physical the battle that takes place is mental – we hear it through cleverly written and well acted voice over. Ironically the effect on the viewer goes from psychological to physical. Some people left the film crying, one woman in the back had a tissue box out. For me the film peaked emotionally very early on and by the time it was done, I was so psychologically exhausted I had a headache.

There’s nothing subtle about the way Bauby’s world is portrayed, which is fine, but when the extreme sense of enclosure is shown to us so repetitively the film becomes more about forcing you into his shoes than letting us see who was wearing those shoes in the first place.

Bauby is never a person you grow to like or a person you ever dislike, he’s a person. In many ways I respect this. Avoiding pegging him as a “type” is another way the movie transgresses the typical over coming who you are cliches and focuses on the original aspects of the story: how he has to overcome this debilitating loss of a functioning body. Bauby in a sense becomes an everyman, and yet he isn’t quite – he’s more an empty man, allowing us to imprint our own personalities onto him.

The problem with this is you never quite get to know him well enough for his life to be an emotional journey. Once the emotional effect of the situation he’s in begins to fade we’re left with nothing else but to watch the techniques being used. Bauby in flashback seems to react to everything in a state of emotional blankness – unless it’s dealing with sex, which he seems more affected by then anything. Staring at a gaudy Madonna (the Virgin not the singer) statue with flashing bulbs he seems as blanks as he does after the stroke. He’s treated through such a nonjudgmental eye he becomes a shell of a man, connected to nothing. I imagine you can show someone’s darker side in a fair way, which is to show his lighter side as being just as important to who he is. But neither side is explored.

The only person he seems to have a true emotional history with is his Father, Papinou, who is played by the amazing Max von Sydow. I await the day Hollywood gives him a real role to play that isn’t the gray haired heavy. In these few moments Almaric gives Bauby a lightness. There’s an ease about him that carries over into the other scenes.

Like Papinou there are other characters in the film that inform us to an extent as to what kind of person Bauby was, and his voice over (perhaps created from his words in the book) lets us getgives us additional glimpses as to what he could have been like.

He loves modelesque women and is lucky enough to have in them surround him in the present and past. He wonders for a moment if he’s in heaven when the speech therapist (gorgeous) shows how he should be practicing moving his tongue, by sensually moving her own. It’s unfair for him that he can’t do anything about it and we laugh because, well, it is. The other nurse (gorgeous) finds a way that he can communicate. It’s a long and tedious process but it’s eventually how he manages to write the book.

He receives visitors, his ex-wife (gorgeous) whom he left for another woman (gorgeous), some best friends, a strange visitor that is a metaphor for his own situation. Everybody does a wonderful job in the film and all the characters love Bauby, even the people that should hate him, and by this we’re supposed to love him – a sort of trickle down effect. But in the end, while the puzzle pieces from other characters are supposed to fill in Bauby’s blanks, the opposite occurs. Just by the fact that these characters are willing to set aside their own emotions for Bauby we end up with a clearer picture of who they are rather than Bauby.

Not only this but about halfway through the film, the story folds in on itself and we’re subjected to the repetition of imagery, metaphor and story to the point that Schnabel doesn’t seem to know what else to do with the material other than what’s he’s already done. This brings Bauby’s story to a grinding halt.

It’s a great director whose not afraid to show us an image of a man in a diving bell surrounded by water once…maybe twice, but Schnabel feels like he has to burn the image into our retina. We see the man in the diving bell at least 10 times through out the film, with a variation popping up twice. It’s unnecessarily overwhelming. When you repeat a word over and over again it starts to lose it’s meaning, the same can be said for the number of times we see the same images in this film. Schnabel seems to want to burn theses images onto our retina. Whereas when I think about No Country for Old Men there’s hundreds of images that spring to mind and none of them are repeated, but are built upon.

And are the things Bauby imagines in the film the true extent of his imagination? If so, then he wasn’t very imaginative. And again the repetition of images overwhelms other images making them very much secondary and less memorable.

There’s more than one occasion in which we’re given an am “I’m like you” metaphor from secondary characters. Thankfully the character of Paupino appears a second time and injects a much needed emotional catharsis for the audience. Sydow deftly manages the job of giving us something to feel. He reminds us that there is an emotional core to what Bauby is going through.

Unfortunately in the end, while we leave with a clear understanding of what Bauby went through, because he seemed so flippantly indifferent about everything in his life, we feel just as indifferent about who he was. The only emotion I was left with in the final moments was towards the woman whom he left for his wife. I won’t go into details, but I felt anger. And from the way the end was filmed and the tears running down everyones’ faces, including the audience members, I’m not sure if this was the emotion they were going for. It does take an effective film though to draw such a strong emotion out of me.

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5 Responses to ““The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”: Effective…but Great?”

  1. sammi Says:

    Here is the real story:
    http://archive.salon.com/ent/feature/2008/02/23/diving_bell/index.html

  2. jim stanton Says:

    ‘overcame his problem’?. He died.

  3. Phillip Says:

    “…overcame his problem.” He wrote a book with his eyelid.

    We all die. Mortality is everyone’s problem not just his.

  4. JD Webb Says:

    I enjoyed that

  5. Conrad Bencosme Says:

    Will anyone have anything else on this? I would would be interested to be told more concerning this as it’s all new to me

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