Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon)


I can't imagine myself being stuck and trapped in my own body, where it becomes a prison cell. Unable to move about freely having lost all my psycho-motor skills, with muscles refusing to obey my mental will, and being robbed of all ability to communicate, save for the movement of an eye and an eyelid. You want to scream and tell everyone of the pain you're suffering from, and you yearn to respond normally to questions and interact plainly with people. You try, but you just can't.

That was the world of Jean-Dominique Bauby. Based on a true story of a man inflicted with such a rare cerebrovascular disease, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is his book, dictated alphabet by alphabet, about his life and his monumental ordeal, burdened on a man at the top of his career, being the editor of fashion magazine Elle, and seemed to be living up the good life. In a stroke, the life he was knew is no more, and all that's left is his left eye, his imagination to bring him out of his imprisonment, and memories, good and bad, from which to reflect upon. The easy way out is of course giving up hope and professing his wish to die, but with the help of a committed team of hospital staff, he managed to find some meaning and soldier on in this strange, second half of a life.

In some ways, the encouragement of subject matter experts do help, in trying to reach out from within oneself, and pull one out of depression, despair and hopelessness. And he's lucky too with the team of Henrietta (Marie-Josee Croze), his speech therapist who devised an innovative though tedious way for him to communicate his thoughts, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner) his physiotherapist in helping to get him move, no matter how minute such movements were, and the patience of Claude (Anne Consigny) who is probably given the most monotonous of all responsibilities, tasked to patiently take dictation, alphabetically, to help Jean-Dominique Bauby complete his autobiography. Through such interactions, even though he feels akin to being in a diving bell (hence the title) bringing him deeper into the depths of the ocean in solitude, each individual find their niche area in which to connect with Jean-Dominique, and in doing so, find new friendship, and companionship even.

What strikes you at first is the cinematography adopted for the movie. It opens quite blurry, in an out of focus fashion, with a couple of fades to black. Then you slowly realize that you're watching events unfold through a pair of eyes, as your view is restricted to what's straight ahead, and the angle as provided by a rotating eyeball. I would say it's very well done, as it goes for as realistic a look as possible, even deliberately blurring things in the field of vision that the brain is not focusing on, which reminds me of what Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did for the replaying of memories. This eye for detail (pardon the pun) serves the movie very well as it puts us in the driving seat of being in the character, coupled with hearing his thoughts, which at times are witty and comedic, in order to keep oneself sane (as with the leering of and lingering on the female chest area).

But before you cry foul at yet another shaky-cam movie, director Julian Schnabel doesn't fall into the temptation of presenting the entire movie in this fashion. There are periodic third person and the more conventional storytelling methods adopted as well to bring you out of Jean-Dominque's mind and consciousness, which could be quite depressing I suspect for an audience if dwelled upon for too long. Emotionally, it's a deeply moving film, as the story inevitably allows you to feel some empathy for Jean-Dominique, and more so when we witness the helplessness of friends and family in trying to come to grips with what had happened. I guess one of the hardest fact to accept is that while you know he's listening to you, communication comes with a barrier in the form of a proxy, and such indirect methods on one hand is unsatisfying, but on the other, you just have no choice at all.

Actor Mathieu Amalric has to be applauded for the wonderfully restraint acting. He can't move most of his muscle groups even if he wanted to, not when the camera is on him. If there's an award for actors who can act through one eye, then this performance must be it. You feel his pain, sorry, happiness, fear, entire human emotions all coming through being an inevitable cyclops, as he struggles and finds untold inner strength. The frankness of his monologues, employed to tell us about his thoughts and desires, make for an all rounded character, not wanting to artificially present just the good parts, or bad. The rest of the supporting cast helped made this movie pretty engaging, no doubt the key female characters in Jean-Dominique's life being quite the eye candy themselves.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly well deserves the accolades bestowed upon it, and it is likely to do well in the upcoming Oscars too. This is one highly recommended that you cannot afford to miss as it makes its premiere on the local screens. A must watch, most definitely, put this amongst the top of your list in this crowded January week!

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