In the eye of the protagonist

The Diving Bell and the ButterflyThe Diving Bell and the Butterfly: 112 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Julian Schnabel. Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Max von Sydow. Website.

A viewer's engagement with film is largely passive. This makes a cinema seat the perfect place from which to experience the 'locked in' world of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Amalric) — a former fashion magazine editor paralysed by a severe stroke. The common metaphor to describe feeling empathy is to 'put yourself in someone else's shoes'. Director Schnabel goes further and places his audience inside Jean-Do's eye.

Unable to move or speak, Jean-Do becomes a spectator to the world around him. For much of the film we see what he sees and, as a result, feel what he feels. Extensive point-of-view cinematography replicates the imprecision of Jean-Do's wandering eye. It's unsettling. Early in the film, you'll discover what it looks like to have the lid of one dysfunctional eye sutured shut while you are fully conscious.

The vicarious physical discomfort of this scene finds emotional equivalents later on, when friends or family members drift frustratingly in and out of Jean-Do's field of vision as they speak to him, lean close in overwrought sympathy, or gaze upon him with piercing compassion.

Diving Bell provides relief and character development through flashbacks to Jean-Do's previous, glamorous life. His philosophical reappraisal of life and his personal achievements lend lyricism to the film. He also comes again to appreciate of the power of imagination, and shares with us his romantic flights of fancy.

To meet the people who populate Jean-Do's static existence is touching. There's Henriette (Croze), the speech therapist who teaches him to communicate by blinking his remaining eye. Claude (Consigny), the heroically patient book editor to whom Jean-Do 'dictates' his memoir (an excruciating, letter-by-letter process guided by Jean-Do's blinking eye) reaffirms him professionally and artistically. Celine (Seigner), a former lover and the mother of Jean-Do's children, offers him personal affection.

It's a poignant irony that so many of the people who so support Jean-Do during his disability are beautiful women. The iconic 'beautiful woman' was the plaything of his professional life as editor of Elle. The fact he is now reliant on such women to survive underlines the inversion of his world.

Contrasts between past and present life are central to the character study. Another is seen in Jean-Do's relationship with his elderly father (Sydow). A flashback portrays him lovingly shaving the old man, who later weeps at the similarity between his own shut-in state and the mentally locked-in state of his son.

Diving Bell suffers from its lack of narrative structure. Some of the characterisation remains half-baked. When, early in his rehabilitation, Jean-Do tells Henriette that he'd prefer to just die, she responds in an overly emotional manner that suggests a story in itself. But later in the film, after she has served to teach Jean-Do his method of blink-speaking, her character almost disappears.

This is a film to experience more than a story to be told. Schnabel is less interested in constructing a narrative than he is in juxtaposing images and sounds like freeform poetry to evoke thought and emotional engagement. This he certainly achieves.


Tim Kroenert Tim Kroenert is the Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He was previously a staff writer and film reviewer with The Salvation Army's national editorial department. His articles have been published by Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and the speculative fiction review website ASif!.

 

 

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