2007 filmsGuest Reviewsmovies of the 2000sUncategorized

Nick Clement on ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ (2007)

review by Nick Clement

You know that feeling when you have talented friends who do really cool things and then share them with you to use on your podcast’s website? IT NEVER GETS OLD.

Which is why we’re beyond Thunderdome excited to have frequent guest, and gonzo film critic at large, Nick Clement weigh in on this unforgettable flick from director Julian Schnabel.  Check out Nick’s work for Varitey and Podcasting Them Softly , and if you see him out on the streets make sure to give him a slow hug and a quick high five from all of us here at Never Heard of It.


Julian Schnabel’s extraordinary film THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY was, for me, the crowning achievement in filmmaking for 2007. No film captured me the way this film did, and that’s saying a lot; 2007 was a landmark year for cinema. Movies like THERE WILL BE BLOOD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN challenged their genres and defied conventions; THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, ZODIAC, and INTO THE WILD were all incredibly evocative films, filled with exceptional acting, uncompromising production values, and richly layered themes. But what Schnabel and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) did was create an impressionistic painting inside of their camera; this film is pure art-as-cinema, utterly exquisite in every visual way and emotionally resonsant beyond any reasonably measure. And as time has gone on, I’ve revisited this film as a way of reminding myself that my worst day is nothing compared to those who are truly less fortunate or struggling with something as inhuman as what’s depicted in this film. And yet, rarely have I ever encountered a film of such ravishing beauty; Juliette Welfling’s brilliant film editing also adds to the film’s distinct rhythm. The screenwriter Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST) adapted Jean-Dominique Bauby’s poignant memoir with grace and elegance and never a hint of condescension. This is a powerful film with a uniquely compelling story at its center, and the lead performance by Mathieu Amalric is nothing short of astonishing. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is one of those movies that you might not want to watch, but you owe it yourself to see.

Amalric is Bauby, the French editor of Elle magazine, who suffered a near-fatal stroke while on a routine drive with his son. A healthy guy for the most part, it was the sort of tragedy that came without warning or reason. Paralyzed from head to toe and confined to his hospital bed or wheel chair, Bauby, as one could imagine, was helpless. Except for one thing: he could blink his right eye (his left eye had to be sewn shut due to health concerns, the depiction of which is positively haunting). Bauby was stricken with “locked-in” syndrome. Essentially, he was aware of his surroundings, his brain activity was adequate, and he could hear and understand what people were saying. But he couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, couldn’t walk, couldn’t eat, etc. Obviously wealthy, Bauby was able to afford top-notch treatment at the best available hospitals in France. A team of impossibly patient (not to mention stunningly beautiful) nurses and therapists were there to help Bauby recover as best as possible; given his situation the doctors didn’t promise much, but hoped for the best.

Then, in a stroke of genius, one of the therapists devised a way to communicate with Bauby. She would sit with him and read him each individual letter of the alphabet; it would be up to Bauby to blink with his right eye when she read the correct letter that he wanted to use to form a word. Initially resistant to this routine, Bauby didn’t want to feel like a science experiment. But he soon realized that this was the only way he could continue being a human. Bauby and his therapists worked for months, and in the end, he wrote a memoir detailing his experiences with “locked-in” syndrome, his life before the stroke, and his vivid dreams and imagination. All of this is brought to life by Schnabel in such a lyrical, poetic way that the depressing aspects of the narrative are softened, bringing the audience fully into Bauby’s life. Bauby’s ex-wife Celine, the wonderful and gorgeous actress Emmanuelle Seigner, was also by his side, even in moments of extreme difficulty.

This is the sort of movie that reminds you how lucky you really are. You realize that your problems pale in comparison to those of other people, and if a movie can provide some sort of realistic perspective on life than you know that you’re experiencing something special. The way that Harwood weaved Bauby’s interior monologue (Amalric provides a sobering voice-over narration) throughout the story and overlapping with the dialogue from the other characters is nothing short of remarkable; the film exists, and succeeds, on multiple levels all at once. The opening 30 minutes, shot entirely with subjective camerawork and replete with visual distortions which convey Bauby’s mental and physical state, are some of the most emotionally intense sequences I’ve ever seen. When you do finally see what Bauby looks like, it’s a relief for the audience to be able to put face with voice.

Amalric is devastating as Bauby, if for no other reason than he really depicts how tough living life like this would be. Bauby, not the most sympathetic of people, was a lady’s man throughout his marriage, and isn’t the most likable character. Living life in the fast lane, gallivanting around Europe with models and driving sports cars, Bauby was emblematic of his industry, and as a result, was probably not as good of a father as he might have liked to have been. The relationship that he has with his own dad, played perfectly by Max Von Sydow, is layered and complicated; in one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Bauby gives his somewhat ailing father a shave, and they discuss the kinds of men that they have become. Painful, honest, and funny, all at once, this scene transcends the “hallmark-moment” nature of its fine details, and becomes a unique form catharsis for Bauby, and the audience, a sense of relief that the film is not able to offer up in many other places. Amalric, confined to a bed or wheelchair for almost the entire performance, is able to elicit sympathy from the audience in unique ways; his lust for life, shown in vivid flashbacks, showcases a man in love with many people (including himself) and a man in love with the possibilities that life has to offer. Watch for a splendid sequence late in the film that has Bauby and a female companion sucking down oysters and caviar and champagne; drunk on the joys of life, Amalric is able to convey the intoxication one feels when surrounded with such glorious edible pleasures. And the dedication he puts into learning his new communication system, which while monumentally challenging, is inspirational to say the least. It’s almost impossible for me to utter the phrase “I can’t do that” without almost feeling guilty.

Schnabel, a filmmaker with a painter’s background, directs in brush strokes, giving THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY a surreal quality from the opening sequences. The motif of Bauby trapped inside of an old-school scuba outfit is as lyrical as it is frightening; there’s no doubt that Bauby must have felt like that—trapped and isolated and alone. Schnabel’s ability to bring the audience as close to this feeling of helplessness is truly staggering, and Kaminski’s ever probing camerawork never relents. The way that they designed THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY creates an uneasy mood that brightens up as the story progresses. Schnabel, who’s previous films BASQUAIT and BEFORE NIGHT FALLS also centered on fractured souls, has an innate gift with texture, light, and composition, and the visual storytelling displayed in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is a remarkable feat. This is a film that will make you cry, make you laugh, and remind you of why life needs to be lived to the fullest at all times. I think it’s a masterpiece and I hope that the film continues to find an audience throughout the years.

Directed by Julian Schnabel
Adapted by Ronald Harwood
Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup, Marina Hands and Max Von Sydow
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik
Music by Paul Cantelon
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Juliette Welfling