The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Maryam Abbas 15 February 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon) is one for those looking to escape the humdrum of Hollywood. This Oscar nominated French film offers something slightly more sensitive and that much more original.

The film beautifully depicts the true story of Jean-Dominique a.k.a ‘Jean-Do’ (Mathieu Amalric), the accomplished editor of French Elle who, within a moment, loses everything when he suffers a stroke that leaves his brainstem out of action.

In simple terms, Jean Do was suffering from “locked in” syndrome; his brain still functioned perfectly but he was left in a state of total paralysis. Unable to communicate except by blinking his left eye, Jean Do retreats into his vivid imagination to escape his nightmarish circumstances. He begins to tap into a vast stockpile of memories – of fatherhood, of childhood, of love and passion, grief and unfulfilled desire.

On his touching journey he is surrounded by a myriad of beautiful women such as the constantly loyal Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), Ines (Agathe de la Fontaine), the woman who haunts him; Henriette (Marie-José Croze) and Marie (Olatz Lopez Garamendia), who provide him the means to reconnect with the world and his family; and Claude (Anne Consigny), his quietly patient writing assistant. The visual innovation of director Julian Schnabel gives the film its unique style; the blurry and unsteady shots in the opening allow us to see life through Jean-Do’s eyes, aptly conveying his bodily incarceration.

Throughout the film we are consistently reminded of this imprisonment, through shots where Jean Do struggles with the constraints of his leaden body. It is through his memories, which are skillfully woven into the narrative, that we escape this claustrophobia.

Schnabel uses the picturesque scenery of France to great effect, the camera flitting and soaring across the landscape like a butterfly. Moreover, the poetic writing works beautifully, while the protagonist’s exuberant and flirtatious humour allows for the comical breaks that make the film so compellingly human.

There can be no doubt that Schnabel deserves credit for his sensitive portrayal of a uniquely debilitating affliction, but it’s not all thumbs up. Ultimately, the camera techniques left me disorientated, the unfocused nature losing its relevance towards the film’s end.

The diffusion of memories through the piece, although at one stage incredibly effective, felt increasingly abrupt and out of place. Moreover, the variety of human issues the film raises could have been further expanded upon, especially the father and son relationship that seems vital, but is ultimately underdeveloped.

Nevertheless, the captivating beauty of this film should not be overlooked. It is a tale of one man’s courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, and a testament to the indomitable human spirit.

Maryam Abbas