Deep emotions in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
by Fabien Lemercier
New York-born director Julian Schnabel took his first successful steps in official competition at the Cannes Film Festival today, where he presented his French production The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [+see also:
film profile], an emotionally potent feature adapted from the French novel Le scaphandre et le papillon, written by Jean-Dominique Bauby following an accident in December 1995, which left him suffering from locked-in syndrome.
Completely paralysed and no longer able to talk, the former editor-in-chief of Elle magazine dictates letter by letter, through the fluttering of the eyelashes of his left eye, a type of stationary travel log, which was published in the weeks following his premature death at the age of 44 in March 1997.
Starring Mathieu Amalric – omnipresent at Cannes this year (in the Directors’ Fortnight with Heartbeat Detector [+see also:
film profile], see article, and in Un Certain Regard with Actresses [+see also:
film profile], see news) – The Diving Bell… evolves into a captivating experimental film (in particular the first half with its subjective camera movements and the field reduced to the vision of an eye) and a human tragedy, upsetting for some and tear-jerking for others.
An ambitious and cynical man who never knew failure, Bauby discovered what it meant to be distressed like few ever do. Blessed with a generous sense of self-derision, "his" off-screen voice lends the film a genuine tone of exploration. An exploration of the mise-en-scène, which allows to experience in close-up all the stages of Bauby’s life in hospital in Berck-sur-Mer: from the moment he wakes up from his coma to his extremely slow re-education (the painful realisation of his condition, then the discovery of a means of communication that saved him from his thoughts of death and propelled him into the vast world of his imagination and memories).
This deeply rich inner exploration is carried off well by Amalric’s excellent off-camera narration (thoughts, mental projections, flashbacks on several episodes of his life). Also explored is the relationships of those close to him – his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner), children, father (Max von Sydow), friend (Isaac de Bankolé) and especially his speech therapist (a charismatic Marie-José Croze).
Anne Consigny, Marina Hands, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup and Olatz Lopez Garmendia also star in the feature, scripted by Ronald Harwood (2003 Oscar for The Pianist). Bordering on an excessive melodrama in its second half before a striking end, Schnabel’s film never loses sight of its purpose: an outstanding homage to a man who "hung onto the human being inside him".
Further mention goes to Polish DoP Janusz Kaminski (1999 Oscar for Saving Private Ryan) and Steven Spielberg’s regular partner, US producer Kathleen Kennedy.
Pathé, who is handling what are expected to be promising international sales, will release The Diving Bell… in French cinemas on May 23.
(Translated from French)
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