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"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

Directed by Julian Schnabel.
Written by Ronald Harwood.
Starring Mathieu Amalric.
Release Year:  2007
Review Date:  12/30/07


Meg and I went to see "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" this weekend, and it is a tough sit.  Director Julian Schnabel (who did "Basquiat" from a while back) does an incredible job of putting us in the virtual prison of the film's principal character, but why did we have to sit there for so long?

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) is 42 years old, the father of a couple of beautiful kids, and the editor of Elle magazine's French edition.  Then, one day, he has a stroke so massive that it leaves him completely paralyzed over his entire body save for one space: his left eye.  With his mind completely capable but his body completely the opposite, a team of doctors try to work with "Jean-Do" (his nickname) to help him recover some of his former self, even if that only means communicating by blinking commands & approvals with his left eye.  As luck would have it, Jean-Do had a book deal that he was about to begin fulfilling before his stroke, so with the publisher's permission he starts a book of a different nature--a reflection of his life before the stroke and in the hospital after it, all while writing literally one letter at a time because the nurses at the hospital have to read Jean-Do the entire alphabet while he blinks to tell them which letter he wants to use.

It is the massive undertaking of writing one character at a time that is the film's greatest achievement; imagine that I wrote just this review by having Meg read the entire alphabet to me and each time I picked a letter, I would blink once just after the letter I wanted to use...and then, Meg would start over again at A to read the entire alphabet to me while I picked out the second letter of the word I wanted to use.  Just to write this review, that would take hours.  But, once we begin to appreciate Jean-Do's condition and situation, this writing process is fascinating as you try to grasp what life might be like with your mind so capable but your body unable to keep pace with all that you want it to  Schnabel is also wise to keep his camera perspective only coming from the eye of Jean-Do as he looks out at his nurses, or his surroundings, or the friends that come by to visit him.  It feels like prison because it is a prison for our hero.

This also, eventually, turns into the film's biggest weakness later, when we move away from just seeing the action through Jean-Do's eye in the hospital bed and we move out to learn more about the man's life and his skewed perception of the women in his life.  Interspersed with this, we still come back to Jean-Do sitting in bed picking letters out of the alphabet, and later, this really made the film drag for me, so much so that I began to occasionally fall asleep between reading subtitles and watching Jean-Do pick letters again...ugh.  Meg said it best--the film could use some trimming (she preferred 30 minutes; I could probably see 20 being lopped off of the end product), because I think that the film doesn't tread any new ground later in showing us Jean-Do's condition in the same way it was profiled earlier.

But, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (and yes, this is a true story and the book was released about ten years ago) does make you take a step back to appreciate just how harrowing a condition something like a massive stroke can be for a person, especially someone so young and certainly in a situation so surprising.  Even if it runs too long, the main point of the story sticks with you long after you have left the theater.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09