Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly - Don't Pull The Plug

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly - Jean -Dominique Bauby emerges from a coma to learn that he has lost all brain stem function, is paralyzed from the neck down and can only think, hear, blink, and see with one eye. This is not an action picture. Julian Schnabel directs a moving film, based on Bauby's critically acclaimed autobiography. Jean-Dominique (Jean-Do for short, pronounced John Doe) was no everyman, before or after his stroke, unless every man can find reason to live in the most difficult circumstances. Much of the film is seen from his perspective, expanding forward and back from the moment he regains consciousness. The film includes a very effective, and funny, "interior dialogue" in which Jean-Do speaks to caregivers and visitors, who cannot hear him because, although his brain can speak, his vocal chords cannot. Jean-Do quickly recalls that he was the celebrity playboy editor of Elle, with three children, their mother (whom he abandoned for a mistress) who visits faithfully and a beloved mistress, who never arrives. His speech therapist develops a method of communication - she reads an alphabet reordered based on frequency of use and he blinks when she gets to his letter of choice. His first sentence is "I want death", but Jean-Do lives inside his memory and his dreams and even manages a surprising life in the present, retaining a sly sense of humor, building new relationships with his family and caregivers and laboriously, letter by letter, creating that autobiography.

The film is at its strongest when it stays closest to the book and the first person viewpoint. Jean-Do's humor, perspective, and sometimes poetic narrative carry the day. To be fair, the embellishments work too, each dream and memory sequence, each scene shot from outside Jean-Do's perspective, adds to his story. The scene in which the mother of Jean-Do's children must function as his voice in a telephone conversation with his mistress is a sledgehammer to the gut. The film's only significant weakness is the result of an editing dilemma. Each scene works, but some scenes drag the viewer perilously close to the edge of pathos, and two hours on emotional edge creates a resistance that begins to dull the film's effectiveness. The scenes taken most directly from the author's perspective best avoid this dilemma.

So, you are thinking, why would I want to see a low budget, independent, French language film with subtitles about a dying paraplegic instead of Die Hard 4 when I only get out to the movies once every two weeks. Two reasons. First, every actress in this film is beautiful and exceptionally talented (we won't even mention the subtle score or the extraordinary performance by Mathieu Amalric as Jean-Dominique Bauby - all he's got to work with is one eye - My Left Foot was a comparative piece of cake). Second, before watching this movie, I would have left a living will, instructing all concerned to "pull the plug" if I suffered a stroke that left me in Jean-Do's condition. Now, I'm rethinking that instruction.

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