© Prokino (FOX)

Schmetterling und Taucherglocke (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Le Scaphandre et le papillon)
France/U.S.A. 2007

Opening 27 Mar 2008

Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Writing credits: Ronald Harwood, Jean-Dominique Bauby
Principal actors: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais

Be reassured: this film is as excellent as Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book, the inspiration for the film. In the beginning we inhabit the body of Bauby as he awakes two weeks after falling unexpectedly into a coma at age 43. “Awake” is a relative term, since Bauby suffers from locked-in syndrome and is totally paralyzed except for one eyelid. Hoards of doctors led by a chief with the personality of Kermit the Frog add to the confusion. It is difficult to perceive contours. Fright and helplessness are real. We see children’s drawings on the hospital walls as well as parts of visitors who attempt to communicate. Nurses come and go; a speech therapist explains a new system of communication. The feeling is of drowning – almost, but not quite – the feeling of being underwater in a diver’s suit. One day Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) sees a reflection of himself. He sits in a wheelchair at the end of the dock near the Berck Maritime Hospital in France. The “butterfly” phase kicks in as his mind flies free to reminisce about old loves, discussions with his father, a trip to Lourdes. He begins to “dictate” his book, letter by letter, with one eyelid.

This is director Julian Schnabel’s third film, and he seems unable to make a bad one. For this film he has already won awards for best director (Cannes, Golden Globe). He, and his camera man Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List), should be up for more. The film takes license with the book as if friends and relatives have filled in blanks. For example, his estranged wife Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner) plays a much larger role. She visits him faithfully with the children. The film recalls a visit with Bauby’s father in which the old man advises him “not to leave the mother of your children.” The wife deals with the girlfriend who avoids a hospital visit. I wonder why Bauby dedicated his book to his children and his editor/helper Claude Medibil (Anne Consigny), rather than Céline. In the film his friend Jean-Paul, who vegetated in a Hezbollah prison for four years, visits him; in the book they are never reunited. These additions make the film richer. Whether they are in accordance with Bauby’s perceptions, we will never know.

Would anyone be interested if the protagonist were not a young playboy, the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine? The film/book would never have existed if this playboy had not had an editor-in-chief’s mentality, intelligence and determination to blink his text for fourteen months before dying in March 1997. In spite of the deep sadness, the film is humorous and inspirational with a message: live life to the utmost. This film will be a milestone for many years to come. (Becky Tan)

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