Thursday, August 12, 2010

More Movies: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Julian Schnabel, 2007

Ebert: 4 Stars
Rotten Tomatos: 93%

My Official Preconception: I don't have a clue what this is, or is about. It sounds like the title of an Oliver Sacks book. Plenty of library copies available.


One of the most fascinating characteristics of the human mind, as described by any introductory psychology textbook and elaborated in delightfully eerie case studies by people like Oliver Sacks, is its ability to know stuff without realizing it knows stuff. Case in point: somewhere in my brain, there clearly lurked the information that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is about a man in an extreme psychological state. I just didn't know I knew that. Very interesting.

But enough about me. Let's talk about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the famous fashion rag Elle who suffered a massive stroke in 1995 that left him with "shut-in syndrome." Completely paralyzed, Bauby was fully conscious but unable to interact with the world except by blinking his left eye. Over the next year and a half, Bauby worked with very patient therapists and transcribers to literally blink out a book describing the experience. That book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, received strong critical praise and became a runaway European bestseller, but sadly Mr. Bauby died a few days after its publication.

Now this is an amazing story, no two ways about it, but you might think that it would be difficult to make a compelling film out of a paralyzed man blinking out a memoir. But this is apparently not true. Observe the above stats: an impressive 93% of movie critics found Diving Bell, um, "fresh," including the dean of American movie critics, Roger Ebert. Mrs.5000 found it deeply moving, and of course so did Ann Piper, who was kind enough to recommend the film to this list of movie reviews.

So, it may be only a deficiency in my own character that I found this film about as exciting as you would expect to find a film about a blinking man. I thought it was a crashing bore. A beautifully acted, expertly filmed, well-edited, and entirely stylish crashing bore, to be sure, but a bore nonetheless.

There are only so many things you can do in a movie about a character who is inert. Tick them off on your fingers: you can show his initial despair, his resolution to make the best of the situation, the awkwardness and difficulties experienced by his loved ones, flashbacks to happier times... and here, I am running out of ideas. The movie marched gamely through this sequence, but that's pretty much all it could think of too.

Too, offsetting the excellent crafting of the movie -- in my own unusual subjective experience, that is -- were three specific annoyances. Firstly, the method of communication devised by Bauby's therapist is insanely cumbersome, requiring a full recitation of the alphabet for every letter. Now, this is in fact the method that Bauby used -- I looked it up -- so there must have been a good reason for it. But the movie never makes clear why such a clumsy process is necessary, which leaves one free to devise all sorts of more efficient systems during the interminable scenes of pretty women reciting the French alphabet. I made Mrs.5000 promise, in the event that I develop locked-in syndrome, to teach me Morse Code.

Secondly, the secondary characters act like movie characters instead of actual humans, which is unfortunate in a biopic. The most egregious case in point is when Bauby, getting the hang of the blink system, "says" that he wants to die. His therapist freaks out, has a snit-fit, yells at him, calls him "obscene," and stalks out of the room. Uh huh. Whereas, in real life, anyone who works in a hospital, or for that matter anyone who has ever been around a very sick person, or for that matter anyone who has mused with their junior high school friends about what it might be like to be very seriously ill, might, you know, expect a man who suddenly finds himself paralyzed from the bridge of the nose down to have a period of despondency. Might even be prepared to deal with it gracefully. I assume that they train their therapists in France?

Thirdly, and then I'll shut up, Schnabel creates space between the blinking scenes with various montages over rock music. It is, to be sure, pretty good rock music, but in general (and specifically in Diving Bell) I find the ol' musical montage a pretty weak gambit in a film, especially when repeated several times. The director is trying to lift you up on the emotive power of image and sound, but they are generally also trying to maneuver past a stretch of plot exposition that the medium of film is poorly suited for. Too, when confronted with a rock montage, I am always immediately conscious that a soundtrack album is being marketed to me, which is distracting.

Prognosis: * * 1/2, which is as low as I'm willing to go for a movie so well-crafted and well-intended. And I'd be an idiot to recommend you not see it: against my personal indifference is mustered the collective enthusiasm of Roger Ebert, 93% of all critics, Mrs.5000, and Ann Piper! Oh, and it was named "Best Picture of the Year" by the L.A. Times and New York Magazine! Besides which, I want you to watch it. I want you to watch it and report back and tell whether I'm just a soulless curmudgeon. Or, who knows? Maybe you'll be bored too!


KarmaSartre said...

I loved this film. I was very impressed with Mathieu Amalric, not just for rising to the challenge of such a strange role, but for his achievement in it. It left so many indelible impressions. It was unsettling, and somewhat disappointing, to see his next role was as a cartoon villain in a James Bond movie.

An added benefit of the movie is that I find it useful, when your spouse doesn't understand what you're talking about, to start reciting the alphabet in French.

M5, I see you gave it 5 half-stars (half-asterisks?). I would give it 7 half-stars and a standing-O.

Jenners said...

You know what is not boring? Your review of this movie.

MulchMaid said...

Ooh, we're getting this next from the movie rental service. I fear I should not have read your review first.

I'll be checking back in after I see it next week.

UnwiseOwl said...

Can I get away with calling you a curmudgeon and not have to sit through the movie?

Michael5000 said...

Karma: à chacun son goût!

Jenners: You flatter me!

Keep up the good work.

MulchMaid: I await your report.

Owl: Yes. I have so few means of revenge at my disposal.

MulchMaid said...

Post-viewing Report: I found this film well crafted, beautiful, and quite moving.

I agree with you about the seemed a bit pat.

A couple of the scenes, such as the one where Jean-Do has his stroke and when someone turned off the TV when he was watching the soccer match really stuck in my mind.

Sorry it didn't do it for you, you soulless curmudgeon.

Michael5000 said...

More evidence from the MulchMaid! I'm a soulless curmudgeon!

E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L.....