AFI Fest 2007: Day 8

thedivingbell-250.jpgThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon)
France/USA 2007

Told almost entirely from the perspective of a man whose movements are confined to blinking one eyelid, the miracle of Julian Schnabel’s new film is that it works at all. That it is also a stirring testament to the human capacity to overcome and to adapt in the face of enormous obstacles is a bonus surprise.

It’s based on the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor in chief of Elle France written after he suffered a massive stroke that left his brain functioning normally, but his body completely paralyzed. He’s essentially forced to live in a world of his own memories and imagination, but once he learns to communicate with the outside world, literally one letter of the alphabet at a time, he’s able to reconnect and share his experiences.

Hitchcock was renowned for films like Lifeboat and Rear Window that were filmed entirely within confined locations. In many ways, Schnabel’s location is a man’s head. True, like Bauby himself, Schnabel along with screenwriter Ronald Harwood and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are liberated by Bauby’s memories and imagination, but much of the movie is taken up with Bauby’s efforts to communicate. The supporting cast frequently act directly to the camera and by extension the audience itself.

Of my two favorite scenes, one is a memory where Bauby recalls shaving his elderly father (a heart breaking Max von Sydow). It’s a simple scene bursting with affection and intimacy conveyed in a few simple gestures. The other occurs post-stroke and involves the mother of Bauby’s children (the beautiful and sad Emmanuelle Seigner) having to translate an exchange between Bauby and his most recent lover.

It’s the supporting cast (including Marie-Josée Croze as Bauby’s speech therapist) that carries the film during the scenes when Bauby is limited to nothing more than eye movements. Special mention should be made however of lead actor Mathieu Amalric who makes the most of a limiting and difficult part.

When I heard about this film, I wondered if it could be pulled off without being a TV movie-of-the-week. It worked and it turned out to be one of the nicer surprises of the festival so far.

As a special personal bonus, I found myself sitting directly behind Mr. Max von Sydow. It’s always a little exciting to see this or that celebrity but to be in the company of a true giant of cinema is more than a little thrilling even for this jaded old cynic.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is scheduled for limited release on November 30th, 2007

I have to admit I’m exhausted after the midnight screening of No Country for Old Men (review to follow perhaps after a second viewing this weekend) so I may just see one movie tonight or I might even take the night off. A day and a half remain and I’ve already hit my low target of 16 movies so we’ll see.

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