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The Independent Critic

Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Max Von Sydow, Mariee-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny
Julian Schnabel
Ronald Harwood (based upon book by Jean-Dominique Bauby)
Rated PG-13
112 Mins.
 "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" Review 
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I remember the first time it dawned on me that I could have sex.

I was 21-years-old and utterly clueless about the opposite sex.

Then, it happened.

Lisa was her name. She and I were drama students at Indiana University who'd shared an acting class and had rehearsed several scenes together.

She looked at ME. She looked at ME. She didn't see my birth defect, my spina bifida or my seemingly endless array of physical quirks.

Our first time was in her Bloomington, Indiana apartment.

I ain't lyin. It was FANTASTIC.

"The Waterdance," one of my favorite films is about a young man, played by Eric Stoltz, who is having an affair with a married woman when he's injured in a hiking accident and becomes a paraplegic. The film's tagline is "Imagine being trapped inside your body...Imagine being set free."

That's how it felt for me the first time I made love. Suddenly, I realized that all the crap I'd heard about my limitations, my disability and my inability to have sex was pure garbage.

Sure, I had to be creative and, undoubtedly, it helped to have an understanding partner...but, man, I'd been set free from the confines of my own disability.

Jean-Dominique Bauby was never set free.

The central figure in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) started out a free man. Bauby was a highly successful editor of French "Elle" magazine when, in his early 40's, he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with "locked in" syndrome, a condition that left him fully alert with a functional mind and hearing but a body that was completely paralyzed with the exception of being able to blink his left eye.

For a man who had lived a life of leisure, elegance and passion, such a fate seems unfathomable...even cruel, yet under the direction of Julian Schnabel ("Basquiat," "Before Night Falls") "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is an unflinchingly honest and uncomfortable films that avoids the easy traps of sympathetic portrayals and hero worship for Bauby, who would use his last days alive to write the profoundly moving book of the same name by blinking its text letter by letter to a heartbreakingly loyal ex-wife (Emanuelle Seigner), an enterprising speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze), his nurse and a publishing assistant.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a film that, quite literally, aches with intimacy that defies the simplicity of a quick fuck by exploring what it means to be intimate within ourselves when nothing else exists but our thoughts, our feelings, our visions and fantasies and memories. The intimacy that exists in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is the sort of intimacy that is so bloody real that sometimes you have to turn away, look down, grasp your hands, put your head between your legs and remind yourself to breathe.

What Schnabel captures onscreen is the heart and soul of a man who is completely locked into a different reality from which he cannot escape. The brilliance of Schnabel's masterwork is that he captures, assisted by the stellar cinematography of regular Spielberg DP Janusz Kaminski, a world in which Bauby's physical being coexists with a consciousness that has been unaltered by the stroke. How Schnabel so vividly paints such a coexistence is lightly Fellini-esque in the way it melds together fantasy and reality.

In essence, the man named Bauby still exists. He dreams, thinks, intellectualizes, fantasizes and leers...he is simply yet painfully stuck inside a body that will not allow him, with the exception of a blink of an eye, to express such things so basic to human existence.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is written by Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") and largely takes place in a claustrophobic hospital setting that enhances the uncomfortable world in which Bauby is living. It is worth noting that the film itself was filmed in the actual hospital in which Bauby was treated.

Harwood's script complements perfectly Schnabel's decision to paint the story devoid of the stereotypical sympathies and superhero inspirations. Instead, Bauby never becomes more or less than a man who has lived a life fully and yet, now, must live with only the memory of actions, choices, conversations and passions from the past and fantasies that seemingly lead nowhere.

If Mathieu Amalric were an American actor, his performance would unquestionably be Oscar-nominated. It is unquestionably one of the Top 5 performances of 2007 and, perhaps, the best of them all. Amalric exudes life in the scenes of Bauby's life before the accident and, miraculously, just as much so while only able to blink an eye.

Emmanuelle Seigner, as the common-law wife and mother of his children that he abandoned for a mistress, radiates love and loyalty and tenderness that is seemingly immeasurable. She is so completely present with Bauby that it is difficult to imagine how he ever came to a decision to leave her.

As his 92-year-old father, Max Von Sydow offers a remarkable brief appearance while Marie-Josee Croze glows as his speech therapist. Anne Consigny and Olatz Lopez Garmendia round out the cast with strong supporting performances.

It is fair to claim that, in spots, Schnabel borders a tad on the self-indulgent and it was difficult to not notice that virtually every woman who surrounds Bauby is a beautiful, tender and self-sacrificing woman. Was this a reality or simply another creation of Bauby's imagination? It's difficult to tell and, in all honesty, a very minor distraction in one of 2007's most stunning films.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" isn't an inspirational film...

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" isn't so much about courage or overcoming or any such things.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is, instead, more simply about the life of one man whose imagination took flight even when his body could not follow. It is about life and love and imagination and fantasy and how it is these things, for which expression ultimately cannot be denied, that really sustain the life within us all.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic