The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Story of French Elle editor underwhelms

Director: Julian Schnabel
Writers: Ronald Harwood (based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby)
Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Jose?e Croze, Anne Consigny
Studio/Run Time: Miramax Films, 112 mins.

In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby—the 43-year-old editor-in-chief of the French Elle—endured a catastrophic stroke that left his brainstem wholly inactive and rendered his entire body (save his left eyelid) paralyzed. Suffering from a rare and terrifying condition known as Locked-In Syndrome, Bauby managed—miraculously—to blink out, letter by letter, a memoir of his ordeal. The book was published in March 1997. Two days after it landed in stores, Bauby died of heart failure.

Long renowned for his neo-expressionist oil paintings, director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) responded to Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of Bauby’s book by positioning the camera so that it shoots from behind Bauby’s one blinking eye, struggling to offer viewers a limited, claustrophobic sense of Bauby’s experience. Ultimately, Schnabel seems less concerned with narrative than composition: Schnabel’s shots are stunning, but ultimately feel self-indulgent and excessive, too grotesque and distorted to really work. Bauby’s story is humbling, and The Diving Bell is remarkably well acted, but the film ultimately feels more like an overwrought art piece than an homage to human tenacity.

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