Eye for an eye. Literally.
Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), editor-in-chief of French fashion magazine Elle, lived a pretty momentous and happy life until he was 43, where he, all of a sudden, suffered a massive-stroke. But his stroke was perhaps the most unique and rare of all time, as the damage to his brain stem results in locked-in syndrome. Meaning, he was practically a vegetable, left for dead, couldn’t move any part of his body, except for one key part: His left eye. Once again, it was a rare case of a stroke, so obviously, no one really knew what to do – the doctors were constantly studying him and figuring out ways to hold conversations with him, which mostly just led to him blinking a lot and getting frustrated. But through it all, Bauby himself kept something of a journal, detailing his inner-most thoughts, his anger, his rage, and eventually, giving a voice to himself, when he couldn’t even mutter a word.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly gets by, for quite some time, on the fact that it’s got this unique and ridiculously odd premise, and works despite itself. Seeing as how the movie is taking place from Bauby’s point-of-view, and considering that this is his story mostly after he suffers the stroke, it only makes sense that the movie take place in his head, where we see everything he sees, hear everything he hears, and, well, not really, but sort of feel what he feels, right?
Well, yeah, kinda. And surprisingly, it works.
Director Julian Schnabel takes a risk here in putting us inside the head and mind of Bauby, where we see just what he sees for at least the first hour or so. It’s actually quite mind-boggling how long Schnabel goes with this gimmick, but surprisingly, it never gets old, or grows tired, like so many other camera-gimmicks of the same nature would have; if anything, it makes us feel closer to this subject and have us grow more sympathetic to him, over time. Sure, it may not have been all that hard to do in the first place, but still, it deserves to be said that the gimmick taken on here, pays-off and honestly, could have gone on the whole time.
Because unfortunately, it doesn’t and eventually, Schnabel, out of fear that the audience may get bored, decides to switch it up to more conventional film-making, where we get everyone else’s stories, start to get flashbacks, and of course, see Bauby, both before and after the stroke. Does it still work? Yeah, it actually kind of does. There’s always something interesting and compelling about these stories in which a person literally has all the time in the world to think about their lives, the mistakes they’ve made, the decisions they should have done, the people they’ve hurt, the ones that they’ve loved, etc., and Bauby’s no exception. It helps that the writing is sharp, too, in that we Bauby himself never loses a comedic-edge to the absolute piece of crap he has been handed, making him, of course, more likable, as the film progresses.
But does it have the same effect?
See, there’s only so much you can do with your film when you decide to abandon a gimmick more than half-way through, especially when the gimmick was already working heavily in your favor. An odd example of this happening elsewhere is in REC 3: Génesis, where, like the two movies before it, is filmed in the trademark, found-footage style, and, like in those two other movies, still works and is perhaps even creepier. But then, out of nowhere, it abandons this and becomes a traditionally-shot film that’s like any other horror film. Was it a risky move? Yep. Did it ruin the movie? Not really, because it still stayed tense. But did it have the same chilling effect as the first two movies, or better yet, the first-half?
Nope, not really. And that’s what happens with the Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
The story is still there and compelling, but it also feels like a wasted opportunity to really go deeper and further with this gimmick. Some may have been especially happy that the film switches gears about more than halfway through and started to introduce a more ordinary style of film-making, which is understandable, but to me, it felt like a cheap back-away from really sticking to itself in telling the story, the way it probably should have been told. I can’t speak on Bauby’s behalf whether he’d be happy about it, either, but hey, maybe he would have.
He seemed to have liked the artistic, more creative side of the world before, well, you know.
Consensus: Instantly smart, original, inventive, and altogether, compelling, the Diving Bell and the Butterfly maintains emotion throughout its two hours, even if it does flutter a bit when it surprisingly switches gears some time around the middle.
8.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire