Experience the triumphant tale of renowned editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, a man whose love of life and soaring vision shaped his will to achieve a life without boundaries. You’ll soon discover why David Denby of The New Yorker calls The Diving Bell And The Butterfly “nothing less than the rebirth of the cinema.”
eyelights: the creative composition of the first 30 mins. the cast. the story.
eyesores: the conventional style of the latter part.
‘Le scaphandre et le papillon’ is a film based on an autobiographical book of the same name. It recounts the aftermath of a massive stroke that former Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered in 1995, causing him to complete his days trapped in his body, unable to communicate except with one eye.
With this eye, and with the able assistance of some of the hospital staff, he was able to “dictate” his memoir, which became a huge success in Europe. Over ten years later, the movie was made. Unlike the book, however, the film focuses mostly on Bauby’s struggles with locked-down syndrome, with but a few passing references to his earlier life.
The film was helmed by critically-acclaimed artist and director Julian Schnabel (‘Before Night falls’) from a script by Academy award-winner Ronald Harwood (‘The Pianist’). Initially, it was to star Johnny Depp in the lead (he was also instrumental in getting Schnabel on board), but due to production delays he eventually had to leave the project.
Instead, Mathieu Amalric plays the part of Bauby, along with Emmanuelle Seigner as his spouse and Marie-Josée Croze as his speech therapist. Frankly, I found the cast absolutely terrific, flawless. There were no showy performances at any point, with the whole lot of them entirely naturalistic and convincing. Unsurprisingly, Amalric won the César.
There’s not much one can say about a movie such as this one because the way it unfolds is key to its enjoyment. It doesn’t rely on melodrama, action or adventure to rivet its audience, choosing instead to chronicle the life of this man during a short period of time (Bauby passed away mere days after his book was published) in a sympathetic and human way.
For me, the first 30 mins would rate a 9 out of 10; it’s pure genius. It transforms what would be a déjà-vu story into a fascinating first-person narrative through blurry shots and other video tricks. I loved seeing things from Bauby’s perspective: not only did it give us a different take on the situation, it effectively put us in his skin and helped us empathize with him.
The audio track also contributed to this effect. In the beginning, the film made us hear Bauby in the back speakers while the rest of the world was in the front speakers. This basically put us in his head, a nifty trick that I really enjoyed. Unfortunately, this amazing effect would be lost with only a stereo speaker set-up, so watching it strictly on television would be a tremendous loss.
After the first half hour, however, ‘Le scaphandre et le papillon’ takes a more conventional approach to its storytelling, going for a third-person perspective that fails to maintain the inventiveness of the first part. This may have been the only way to delve into the man’s back history, but it could have been done in more creative ways, I’m sure.
I suppose that the first part was essential for us to empathize with Bauby, and that it might have been too demanding for audiences to experience the whole motion picture this way, but the problem is that it set the bar so high for itself that it simply could not meet its own standard. It’s understandable, but slightly unfortunate, because the rest felt like a letdown.
Still, ‘Le scaphandre et le papillon’ is a memorable film. I can’t imagine anyone seeing this film and casually dismissing it or forgetting it afterwards. At the very least, it makes you wonder what you would do if faced with similar circumstances. Would I have the courage to continue? Would I be able to forge ahead with what I have left? Personally, I don’t know if I could.
‘Le scaphandre et le papillon’ is the story of a hero, of an imperfect man who is faced with total desolation, with no hope in sight and who finds a way of giving all that he had left to give. Despite the depressing topic, one could easily see this film as an inspirational story, a moving tale that helps one rethink one’s own life. And that’s exactly what makes it excellent cinema.
Date of viewing: April 20, 2013