Release Date: April 29, 2008
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Marina Hands and Max von Sydow
Based on the Book by Jean Dominique Bauby entitled “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon”
Written by: Ron Harwood
Directed by: Julian Schnabel
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a difficult film to sum up in few words. It comes the closest I know of any film in presenting a first-person perspective throughout the story. The story is simple – as told in the book by the real person, Jean Dominique Bauby wakes up from a massive stroke and coma with a condition of “locked in” syndrome, which means that he cannot communicate or move a muscle other than his left eye. Bauby’s story, painstakingly dictated via eye blinks (using an alphabet recitation system) is that of a man attempting to escape the prison of his body through his imagination and his memory, the only two tools left to him aside from the ability to blink his eye. Julian Schnabel and Ron Harwood’s approach to Bauby’s story is to tell it from Bauby’s point of view, and put the viewer in Bauby’s position. Thus, the camera sees through Bauby’s one eye for much of the film, and the characters speak directly to the camera while Mathieu Amalric’s sardonic voiceover tells us what Bauby is thinking. This can be quite restricting, but Schnabel keeps it interesting by cutting in stock footage (of glaciers or of the titular butterfly that symbolizes Bauby’s imagination), underwater footage (Amalric in an old-fashioned diving suit, symbolizing his isolation), flashbacks to Bauby’s pre-stroke life, and some wildly creative fantasy sequences and images. The film is striking for how much story is told here, using very little resources. It’s a rich film, and you may take a few days to absorb it after seeing it. I highly recommend it as a purchase, but I understand if some people want to rent it first. I have a feeling many of those rentals will turn into purchases in short order.
One note on the language of the film needs mention here. Schnabel made the film in France at the real locations, and had French actors speaking their dialogue in the original French of the book. The DVD has the original French track on it (which is what I used), but also has an English track with the dialogue dubbed in English by some of the primary cast, including Mathieu Amalric. And there is a Spanish track if you’re interested. I recommend watching with the French audio on, as it’s the language spoken on the set and feels the best for the story. (I prefer not to watch movies with overdubbed dialogue, as it tends to remove the flavour of the performance.) But I understand if there are viewers who would rather not need the subtitles. Either way, the option is there for you to choose.
VIDEO QUALITY: 3 ½/5 ½
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is presented in a fine anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that effectively displays a variety of settings and formats, primarily from the forced perspective of Bauby’s one good eye. (One effective shot deals with the other eye...) There is some use of stock photography of varying quality, and effective usage of a handcranked camera for some material, causing a layered double-exposure effect. Nestled among this work is a series of striking images that bring to mind Schnabel’s background as an artist. It’s a really interesting set of images, all designed to put the viewer in Bauby’s head – and the transfer effectively brings this to the home theatre screen.
AUDIO QUALITY: 4/5
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in French, English and Spanish. As I noted earlier, the most effective way to watch the film is with the French language track enabled. I am giving this mix a higher rating than the normal film even though it is a fairly quiet film, because it’s a really interesting and effective mix. Specifically, the mix makes a deliberate use of the surround environment by placing the outside world’s voices and sounds in the front channels, but Bauby’s inner monologue in the rear channels. So Bauby speaks from behind the viewer while the people onscreen speak to the viewer from the screen and the front speakers. That, along with an effective placement of music in all channels, earns my interest and will enhance the experience for the casual viewer. It’s really a pleasure to hear someone actually make use of the surround channels in a specific and motivated fashion.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 3 ½/5 ½
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly contains a commentary by Julian Schnabel, a pair of featurettes, and a revealing interview of Schnabel by Charlie Rose. There’s less than an hour of material beyond the commentary, but it goes a long way toward showing what it was like making this film, and why Schnabel chose to make in the way he did.
Director’s Commentary with Julian Schnabel - Julian Schnabel provides a quiet scene-specific commentary that reveals a lot of his thoughts about the material. He talks about the actors and places onscreen and how they relate to the real story (the fact that they shot the film in the exact hospital where Bauby stayed and used the real doctors and nurses that treated him, etc.), and he provides a pretty solid backbone of reference for the film. The thing to understand with Schnabel, though, is that he’s pretty understated. He’s not an outwardly engaging speaker, so, like the film, the commentary requires the viewer to engage with Schnabel to really get the full benefit. That’s probably appropriate for a serious artist – they tend to insist that the audience come at least halfway. A subtitle track for this commentary is available in English, French and Spanish via the subtitle button on your remote, although it is not listed on the packaging.
Submerged: The Making of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - (12:39, Non-anamorphic) – This is a fairly substantial featurette covering the making of the film, in spite of a length of less than 15 minutes. The original novel and the film’s genesis are covered, along with the unusual production conditions. All the principal cast participate in the interviews, along with Schnabel, Ron Harwood, Kathleen Kennedy and Janusz Kaminski. Their discussions are actually fairly deep, especially actress Emmanuelle Seigner’s admission that she was contacted by the real woman she played after the film was released.
A Cinematic Vision - (7:12, Non-anamorphic) – This is a shorter featurette that focuses on the techniques used by Schnabel to put the audience into Bauby’s place. The first-person camera technique is discussed, both in terms of scenes where actor Amalric was placed in an isolation booth near the set to record his ad-libbed reactions to the on-screen dialogue, and in terms of the more ambitious setups that placed Amalric in the same shot via mirrors. This featurette reveals how Schnabel got an iconic image of Bauby on a tiny platform above the waves – by literally carrying Amalric there on his back.
Charlie Rose Interviews Julian Schnabel - (20:19, Non-anamorphic) – An interview of Schnabel from Charlie Rose’s program is included here, and it goes into much greater depth about Schnabel’s reaction to the material and how it relates to his own family. The theatrical trailer for the film is included as part of this program, albeit in the same non-anamorphic format as the rest of the features.
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the film itself and the special features. A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference, along with an inset card listing the chapters inside the DVD case. When the disc is initially started, the viewer is presented with a non-anamorphic anti-smoking ad and an anamorphic trailer for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.
IN THE END...
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a challenging film that holds moments of great beauty while telling the story of a man almost completely unable to communicate with the outside world. And yet that same man wrote one of the most moving books of the past twenty years – by blinking his eye. This film pulls off the feat of not only showing you how he did it, but by putting you in the wheelchair with him. Between the film itself, the adventurous sound mix, and the satisfying extras, I am pleased to highly recommend this DVD.
April 28, 2007.