Since another screening of this film will not make its way to my city, I will write this review based on my notes that I took on the movie from the New Orleans Film Festival this year.
The film opens up (literally) from the eyes of Jean-Dominique Bauby. We hear what he says, but we learn soon he isn’t speaking: we are only hearing his internal monologue.
His body is completely paralyzed, and one of his eyes needs to be sewed up. He sees out one eye, and he uses the one body part he has left to communicate with people around him. Using this same method of communication, he writes a book with the help of a nurse taking dictation.
This story is based in fact, adapted from the book by Bauby, who died about 10 years ago. These events are remarkable, and these last years of his life are a wonderful testament to the human will.
However, the film version doesn’t do a worthwhile job. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly seems to be another movie that expects the audience to love it simply because it’s about someone who did the possible under impossible circumstances. (The ploy appears to be working: as of this writing, the movie is at 100% for Cream of the Crop on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Even though I’m basing this review on notes, they are few and far between, as the movie offers little in the way of (pardon the pun) note-worthiness. Although, i will say, The only part of the movie completely worthwhile is the performance from Max von Sydow. As wonderful as it is, however, I found the movie to be so boring that it overshadowed von Sydow’s fragile work.
The movie only clocks in at a little under two hours, but it feels like ten. The story takes too many detours and back alleys to tell the tale. Even after we get enough of a sense of who Bauby is, we still get stories of when he was well and the time he spent with his father and his wife and other women… Like thick mud, while finding ourselves mushing in the hands of the filmmakers, at the same time, we feel ourselves slipping out slowly.
We are moved at first by the way the story is presented from Bauby’s point-of-view, but its continued use makes it feels like a mere device instead of actually provoking sympathy. The subjective point-of-view has been used before, and Julian Schnabel doesn’t do anything interesting enough to keep it alive for two hours.
I don’t really know what Schnabel was trying to accomplish. I’m a big fan of Basquiat (Schnabel’s first film): I know he’s talented. But with a weak story and uninspired camera techniques, his hands are tied, and the film suffers, resulting in a whimper of a film rather than a bang.