Dir. Julian Schnabel, France/US, 2007, 112 mins, French with subtitles
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze
Review by Carol Allen
One cannot help but feel for Jean-Dominique Bauby (Amalric) in this film. Bauby, a successful journalist, had a stroke in his early forties and woke from a coma to find himself a victim of "locked in" syndrome. He could see, hear, think and remember but the only part of his body still moving was his left eyelid. That became his sole method of communication, through which he dictated the book which became this film.
The early sequences, where the camera is Jean-Do, as he is known, are disturbingly effective, as we see everything from his point of view, indistinct and confusing as he comes out of his coma with his voice in our heads as it were. We are totally inside his situation and indeed his very mind. Equally powerful is the visual metaphor of his imagination, seeing himself as a man trapped underwater inside the diving bell of the title. There is also a scene, when we're still inside his head and his dead eye is being sewn up to prevent infection, which will be tough for the squeamish. When the film shifts perspective and both he and we first see in a mirror the distorted, paralysed version of himself he has become, it is a shock for both both him and us. His physical situation becomes even more poignant, when we flash back into his memories and see what an attractive and vibrant man he was, compared to what he is now - "a vegetable according to the gossip in Paris", as one of his visitor reports.
The means of communication he develops with his therapist (Croze), using his remaining left eyelid, his "butterfly", to communicate the letters of the alphabet is very well done. Though central to the story, it is such a painfully slow procedure that it could have slowed the film right down, but director Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood find ingenious ways to maintain our interest and involvement. The film is very well acted by the entire cast, which also includes Seigner as Céline, his estranged partner and mother of his children and Max Von Sydow as his father. Amalric as this unlikely hero is terrific. Jean Do in his prime is not an admirable character. He is a selfish, pleasure seeking womaniser, absorbed in the glamour of his own success and the actor manages the transformation of his character into a man of sensitivity, who appreciates in retrospect the infinite variety of a life he can no longer fully experience while having nothing to act with but his one eye and his voice.
The film is well written, well structured, beautifully directed and very moving, particularly in a sequence towards the end of the film, when Jean-Do is showing off his beloved flash new car to his son. You can feel the doom in the air just before you see him change before your eyes from an attractive man in early middle age to the physically vegetative state he's been in for most of the film.