Sunday, September 21, 2008

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (Julian Schnabel, 2007, France) Jean-Dominique Bauby is Locked-In to the thick heavy weight of inert flesh and bone, drowning, forever sinking, and unable to scream. Like Joe Bonham, the fictional victim in JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN, his mind is fully intact and inspired but his body broken, unable to touch the world outside and communicate. He is tortured with frustration because understanding comes quickly; but he doesn’t choose to drown in sorrow or pity, to surrender to the murky depths that wait below. He not only chooses to live but he decides to write a book detailing this unjust ordeal; with the help of doctors and friends, he is able to communicate by blinking one eye. This slow process connects him to the world again, letter by agonizing letter, and he is able to attain self-expression. Director Julian Schnabel begins the film from Jean-Dominique’s perspective and through a blurred lens we see the world in extreme close-ups and fragments. Schnabel makes full use of surround sound. The doctors speak from the center channel while Jean-Dominique is answering from the rear speakers and this frisson creates an instant dreamlike sense of dread: He is only speaking in his mind. Schnabel structure’s the film in brief flashbacks and vignettes so we come to see Bauby as he was before the heart attack: a healthy, successful man with a family and everything to live for. The narrative redefines the human essence as more than a superficial mask we display to the world but the power of empathy, imagination, and hope that thrives inside, refusing to wither and die. Jean-Dominique relives moments of guilt and regret and comes to terms with his mistakes. He contrasts his suffering with his kidnapped friend, who existed in his own tiny prison, and his own father whose world continues to shrink and will soon reduce itself to the grave. Schnabel directs with a dramatic visual flare of colors and skewed angles and takes us outside the box (and body) of conventional filmmaking; he is able to make concrete reality seems abstract and surreal, and conversely give form to imagination and memory. A stunningly inspirational film that is as much about Jean-Dominique’s will to live and succeed as it is about the strength of love, family, and friendship. (A)

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