The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is just about the prettiest film you’ll ever see. The opening title credits could be nicked from Amelie, and in fact both films share the same kind of heart. It made me cry, laugh, but most of all it made me feel.
The story, made even more amazing by the fact that it’s true, and taken from the book that Jean-Do (Mathieu Amalric) writes during the course of the film, goes like this: Jean Dominique Bauby, Editor for Elle magazine, is driving in a country lane one day when he has a massive stroke.
He is paralysed completely, apart from his left eye, which he uses to communicate with, and, ultimately write a book with. Most of the film is viewed through this point of view, and director Julian Schnabel took the very brave decision to make it look real.
This isn’t merely a camera plonked on a bed, and everyone talks at it; the light filters whenever something happens, the blinking looks like actual blinking, and the tilts and angles look like genuine human slants. Schnabel isn’t afraid to let the camera tilt, letting the central objects slide out of view. It was a bold decision, and it works very well.
The film could be mere weepy fodder, and while it does have the tendency to get the waterworks going (the scene where he first sees his wife made me sob a lot.), it fills it with a witty, dry, inviting tone that draws you in. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of long forgotten family photos. It’s warm, inviting, and leaves you with a satisfied feeling.
As Jean-Do wanders around in his head, we are allowed in with him, and these charming vignettes, where we see flashbacks and more are the bread and butter of the third act. It’s not like we were ever going to get bored of the first person point of view, but it does allow Mathieu Amalric to do some actual acting, as opposed to just doing the voice-over. And he shines.
He is impish, mischievous, and a little bit, well, naughty. His most effective scene, and arguably the best in the film, sees him shaving his old, cranky father (Max von Sydow, channelling emotion we didn’t know he had) who himself is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. We get dialogue such as this: ‘Having a mistress is no excuse for leaving the mother of your children; the world has lost its values’. And his scenes are the ones you’re more likely to remember as you leave the cinema.
At times, though, the film feels like a collection of great scenes without an awful lot to connect them. This isn’t so much a criticism, more of an observation (Crash, in 2005 was little more than infantile racism inter-cut with a few really, really good scenes, and that won Best Picture), and while I have no problem with this, a more cynical person might take that as the one problem with an otherwise perfect film.
The plot is carried by a combination of the cinematography, the acting, script and direction, all of which are truly ground-breaking. Thank god there haven’t been any copycats since its release: to copy this style would be heartless.
This film is truly incredible, it’s the only way to put it. You shouldn’t be put off by the depressing subject matter, because this is a warm, funny and wise film that draws you in, and when the tears come, they come because you care, not because the director is manipulating your emotions with this much skill and ease. You will be moved.