With a Sad Subject, 'Diving Bell' Surprisingly Funny

Based on Jean-Dominique Bauby's 1997 memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an unexpectedly funny film. It was written after a stroke left Bauby almost completely paralyzed.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's not often that a director learns a new language just to make a film, but Julian Schnabel learned French to direct "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Perhaps, that endeared him to the Cannes Film Festival where he won best director. Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic, Kenneth Turan says it was a wise decision all round.

KENNETH TURAN: Jean-Dominique Bauby's 1997 memoir couldn't be more unfilmable. The author dictated it, letter by letter, by blinking his left eye. That was the only part of his body that was not paralyzed after he suffered a catastrophic stroke that left his functioning brain trapped in an inert body.

Director Julian Schnabel has taken the story and made an imaginative film that joins an unexpected sense of possibility to the inevitable sense of loss. Schnabel started out as a painter, and he has an imaginative feeling for rich imagery. The director also has the same kind of enthusiasm for life as Bauby. So it was clear that "Diving Bell" was going to be the most alive film its creators could imagine.

It's also funny. The film has taken pains to retain the fearlessly sarcastic tone of the author who gleefully compares early attempts by therapists to bundle him into a wheelchair, to movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer's body into the trunk of their car.

The film is largely shot from the paralyzed man's point of view, so we see what he sees, which turns out to be close-ups of all the women in his life. It is the film's true notion, to make each one more beautiful than the next. One of these women constructs a board that lists the letters of the alphabet by the frequency with which they come up in French. The letters are spoken aloud.

(Soundbite of movie, "Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in French)

TURAN: And Bauby blinks at the one he wants.

(Soundbite of movie, "Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in French)

TURAN: Perhaps the most unexpected thing about "Diving Bell" is that this constant repetition of spoken letters becomes - via the use of the supremely melodic French language - an almost sensual pleasure.

(Soundbite of movie, "Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in French)

TURAN: Finally finished with his pages, Bauby anxiously blinks the question, does that make a book? Indeed, it does and an unexpected film as well.

MONTAGNE: The movie is "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Kenneth Turan reviews movies for the Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION.

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'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'

Marie-Josée Croze in 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' i i

In the eye, behold: Marie-Josée Croze plays the speech therapist who helps a paralyzed magazine editor learn to communicate again — by blinking — in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Etienne George/Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Etienne George/Miramax Films
Marie-Josée Croze in 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'

In the eye, behold: Marie-Josée Croze plays the speech therapist who helps a paralyzed magazine editor learn to communicate again — by blinking — in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Etienne George/Miramax Films
  • Director: Julian Schnabel
  • Genre: Biography/Drama
  • Running Time: 112 minutes

Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, was a womanizing man-about-Paris at 43. Then he was felled by a massive stroke.

He awoke in a hospital bed, unable to move or to speak, an angry, unrepentant prisoner of his own body. Only his left eye worked — but that eye proved a window to the world, because with it, Bauby could blink yes-or-no answers to questions. And once a therapist devised a system for him, he could blink whole words and phrases.

And over the course of 14 months, he was able to blink out, one letter at a time, a best-selling memoir of his ordeal called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — a memoir that possibly no one but a neo-expressionist artist like Julian Schnabel would regard as an attractive basis for a film.

What's fascinating is that it is the very restrictions the story imposes on a director that allow Schnabel to turn it into such an eerie stunner of a movie. The first part of the film is told entirely from Bauby's point of view, with the camera seeing only the blurry, imprecise images that he sees: When his right eye must be sewn shut to keep it from drying out, we see that from inside the eyelid.

But once Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) manages to blink his way into communication with those around him, the director pulls back to let us see what they're seeing, and the picture isn't pretty. The man is a mess — and was not, we gather from those who visit him, a very nice guy before the stroke.

But intellectually, and in his struggle, he is a fascinating creature, and this film — rigorously unsentimental, psychologically acute, and wildly creative in its use of the camera — gives him his due. (Recommended)

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