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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Review

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Dazzlingly Imagined

Every year there is a foreign/arthouse film that has critics raving and award committees atwitter. You know you ought to see it, but you can’t quite find the right moment to check it out. Before you know it, one of the best movies of the year becomes destined for the film version of purgatory — your Waitflix Queue.

I'm so glad I spared The Diving Bell and the Butterfly this fate. The movie was just nominated for Oscars in several categories including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Achievement in Cinematography — all of which are well-deserved. It's a beautiful and ambitious cinematic journey to the place where our strongest emotions intersect with imagination, and it's worth adding to your list of movies to see ASAP.

Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) was once the glamorous editor-in-chief of Elle France, enjoying a fashionable and charmed existence in Paris. The good times screech to a halt, however, when he suffers a rare stroke that renders him paralyzed except for the ability to blink his left eye, a condition called "locked-in syndrome." This is where some might get turned off by what appears to be an unbearably depressing premise: A man who "has it all" becomes condemned to watching and listening to the world go by from the inside of a motionless body. Yet to my surprise, Bauby's true story is far from depressing. In fact, I found it to be exciting and inspiring. To see what I mean,


Shot as though we're looking through his one eye, the movie begins with a confused Bauby awakening from a coma. As well-meaning doctors ask him questions he can't physically answer, we feel Bauby's frustration. Director Julian Schnabel allows us to experience the situation along with Bauby, whose easy sense of humor and wit actually manages to keep many of these scenes light. From here Bauby is confined to the care of the dedicated hospital staff in Berck where a patient and kind speech therapist (played by a sweet Marie-Josée Croze) teaches him to communicate through a system of blinking to indicate a letter of the alphabet. Expressing his thoughts this way, he begins to write a memoir.

Bauby starts out observing the most pathetic, even boring details of his day-to-day happenings, like having strangers bathe him and orderlies turning off his television mid-soccer game just as it gets good. Over time, however, he begins to unleash his imagination, indulging in the very best of his memories. We join a dashing Bauby as he dines at the best restaurants in Paris, makes love on the beach to his physical therapist, and relives tender moments with his father (Max von Sydow).

Through vivid bursts of color and possibly the most beautiful cinematography you'll see this year, the end result is a freeing of the mind — not a confinement of it. Incredibly, I almost felt envious of his unique experience rather than horrified by his tragedy.

Photos courtesy of Miramax

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