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      The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Review

      The Diving Bell and the Butterfly poster

      The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      Even an excellent year in film yields a limited number of efforts strong and idiosyncratic enough to be called masterworks, and to appear effortless. We have one in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." It is wonderful: a rhapsodic adaptation of a memoir, a visual marvel that wraps its subject in screen romanticism without romanticizing his affliction. It left me feeling euphoric. And without making conventional movie-ish pleas for our sympathy, director Julian Schnabel has met his subject, French fashion-magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby - egotistical hedonist, allow me to introduce you to egotistical hedonist - on his own terms.

      In 1995, Bauby was 43 and living a conspicuously good life. Then a stroke left him with "locked-in syndrome," essentially immobile except for one eyelid. He spent the last months of his life at the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, near Calais. His speech therapist and physical therapist and neurologist worked to keep him engaged and hopeful, and with the time he had left to him, he managed to "blink" out his memoirs using a painstaking and laborious system, letter by letter. Five hours' work with his aide yielded a page, perhaps two.

      Bauby's "cerebrovascular accident" left him in a metaphoric diving bell, in a world beneath his former existence. It left him also with his memory and his imagination? the butterfly of his memoir's title.

      Nothing in Schnabel's first two features, "Basquiat" (1996) and "Before Night Falls" (2000), prepares you for the cinematic leap forward here. The first 15 minutes or so, we are Bauby. The camera isn't simply shooting for his disoriented point of view ("I can't speak?" we hear the actor, the splendid Mathieu Amalric, whisper in voiceover). It shoots from behind his one good eye, so that every little vertiginous tilt of his head, every blink, each new sensory overload, we experience as Schnabel surmises his subject did.

      This sort of first-person perspective isn't new, but it's very hard to do well without turning it into a melodramatic gimmick. At precisely the right moment the film's perspective changes, and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" adheres more closely (but not too) to the demands of traditional biography. One by one, screenwriter Ronald Harwood introduces friends and family from Bauby's life, never in ways you can predict, never in scenes that rest on cliche. I don't know if I've ever seen such a fluid blend of flashbacks, dream sequences, the clinical mundane jostling with the achingly sensual.

      Emmanuelle Seigner plays Celine, the mother of gadabout Bauby's children. The way Schnabel has cast various supporting roles - notably the remarkable Marie-Josee Croze as the speech therapist, patiently ticking off letters of the alphabet until Bauby's blink selects the desired one for the desired word - he makes the French national health care staff look mighty dishy. Then again, Bauby was the editor of French Elle. "I think the models look like boys," says Bauby's physical therapist at one point. Few would say the same of this ensemble.

      The liberating thing about "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is its interlacing of realities and moods. In voiceover Amalric embodies one aspect of the man in the diving bell; we hear his impatience and his despair and his dirty chuckle at a joke, while the Bauby we see on camera, with his one good, overtaxed eye, embodies another. This flashy, self-centered man does not "earn" our sympathy in the conventional Hollywood manner. He is interesting and charismatic enough not to bother with such things. I love Harwood and Schnabel's resistance in this regard. The two scenes between Amalric and Max von Sydow, as his father, "Papinou" - one a flashback, son shaving his invalid father, the other a final phone call - are as good as such scenes can get. The acting is unerring - forceful and true and without affectation.

      No one would accuse Schnabel and brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski of working without affectation. The film brakes right at the edge of stylistic excess. You may resist some of Schnabel's "sampling" impulses: The score mixes a marvelous original piano theme by Paul Cantelon with fragments of Nino Rota and other film composers, plus Tom Waits and more. Schnabel interpolates stills of Marlon Brando (shot during the making of "Candy") when we hear Bauby recalling his lost virility. Twice we see dreamlike images of glaciers melting into the sea.

      To me none of it feels indulgent or ill-considered. It's a beauty of a film. And it reminds you there are ways to live, and to die, and we're all doing both all along.

      "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

      Directed by Julian Schnabel; screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the memoir "Le Scaphandre et le Papillon" by Jean-Dominque Bauby; photographed by Janusz Kaminski; edited by Juliette Welfling; music by Paul Cantelon; production designed by Laurnet Ott and Michel Eric; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik. A Miramax Films release. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for nudity, sexual content and some language).

      Jean-Dominique Bauby - Mathieu Amalric

      Celine - Emmanuelle Seigner

      Henriette - Marie-Josee Croze

      Claude - Anne Consigny

      Papinou - Max von Sydow

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