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Mind like a butterfly

By Sam Potter

“The Diving Bell and tThe Butterfly”MiramaxDirected by Julian SchnabelWritten by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Jean-Dominique BaubyStarring Matthiewu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner and Marie-Joseée CrozeRated PG-13/112 minutesThree-and-a-half out of four stars

It’s become almost a running joke that when a “disability” movie comes along, it’s sure to snag some attention come Oscar time. The record holds true: films such as “Rain Man,” “The Sea Inside” and “My Left Foot” sucked in statuettes like a Dyson vacuum. Although the artistry and passion that went into those fine films is undeniably exceptional, this repeating pattern can’t help but seem a little cliché.

The latest addition to the disability oeuvre, Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” improves upon the genre’s conventions through the beauty of its artistry and creative approach that take you right inside the mind of the victim. The film is adapted from the memoir of the same name written by former Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a stroke in the prime of his life which left his entire body paralyzed save for his left eye.

The title for both Bauby’s novel and the film is derived from his description of his experience as being trapped in a “diving bell,” or the metallic helmet worn by deep-sea divers. Bauby felt that he was trapped inside of the suit in a vast and endless ocean. This is his waking life. The “butterfly” is his mind as it is free to travel and proves to be the symbol of Bauby’s triumph over his situation.

When physical and speech therapy prove to bring about little improvement, Bauby develops a system of communication with the help of a devoted nurse. The system involves Bauby’s spelling out the sentences he wants to say by having the nurse read through the alphabet and Bauby’s blinking to indicate the correct letter. A painstaking process at first, the two soon become quite proficient. Bauby moves through a grieving process, beginning with denial and anger, then coming to grips with his situation and making the best of it: He decides to turn his experience into a book and hires a “translator” to put his thoughts to paper.

Watching Bauby’s struggle to break through the prison of his body to communicate with the outside world is an intensely fascinating experience. Schnabel’s inspired direction received an Oscar nomination, an accolade that is validated from the film’s opening frames. The first 30 or so minutes of the film are shot entirely from the disabled Bauby’s point of view.

Acclaimed cinematographer and Spielberg go-to-guy Janusz Kaminski (“Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan”) uses a wide variety of odd lenses, focusing tricks and dreamy lighting to convey the surreal experience of waking up to a horrible new way of life. We hear Bauby’s thoughts in voice-over throughout the film and experience the discoveries and realizations of his new sphere of existence just as he would. These scenes are frighteningly realistic, particularly for anyone having undergone a similar experience. Schnabel’s deft touch with these scenes creates a cinematic experience like no other I’ve seen before.

As the film progresses, Schnabel moves from the first person perspective to an omniscient point of view, allowing us to observe Bauby’s facial reactions (or lack thereof) in his interactions with his family and delving into Bauby’s vast landscape of dreams, desires and memories.

After a period of grieving, Bauby comes to a profound realization, “Though most of my functions are paralyzed, there are two that thankfully are not: my imagination and my memory.” We are shown fragments of Bauby’s past life in flashbacks, culminating with the experience that ultimately put him in the “diving bell.” These segments were particularly moving, not because of the sadness of Bauby’s loss, but because they reminded me of how important it is to appreciate our human minds. The gift of imagination, creativity and memory are invaluable, and might be our most prized possessions.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is an inspirational and ultimately hopeful film about the uncanny ability of the human mind to triumph over seemingly hopeless odds. If the film falters at all, it’s in its length. At nearly two hours, the scenes began to come in a monotonous and slightly tedious pace, bouncing from Bauby spelling out words, to friends and family, to some distant memory, to the progress of his book. Although visually striking and containing profound symbols and statements about humanity, the film would have benefitted from some judicious snipping. However, the experience ultimately is as satisfying as any story of the triumph of the human spirit and among the most creative I’ve seen.

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