Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Diving Bell & the Butterfly

I watch movies like alcoholics swill booze. I think about film constantly and look at cinema as a way to escape my surroundings and confine myself to an experience I'm not typically amid. Not complete escapism, since even on my worst days I still enjoy a film that can retain a bit of reality while at the same time affording a glimpse at something you don't encounter every day. I could wax pretentious and call myself a connoisseur of movies, then label off the types and genres and topics that strike me most deeply, but the truth is that my tastes are much more general than I think many people might believe just by looking at my home library. More succinctly, what I really look for in cinema is something that shows me something new. A perspective that I've not seen before. Something visually arresting and moving. A story that creates a well of empathy that builds up for the characters on the screen and for the scenarios they find themselves in, inspiring a reaction from me that is not only sincere at the time, but that stays with me.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly fits this mold almost too perfectly. About Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor for Elle magazine whose misfortune included a massive stroke that resulted in paralyzing every part of him except for his left eye. What we end up seeing is a chain of events chronicling his attempt at rehabilitation and therapy, all through that left eye... at least the first third of the film. It's narrated mentally by Bauby, played incredibly by Mathieu Amalric, not giving us any opportunity to see the story-teller until the movie has already captured your attention. When we do see him, he's enfeebled and small, face drooping and wrists locked up, drooling and incoherent. We watch as he goes through therapy, learning to communicate using his eye as well as attempted physical rehabilitation, ultimately putting together his memoirs.

A simple enough synopsis, but the story has so much more gravitas and heart to it. A huge contribution to what makes Bauby so compelling in the film, given its supposed singular setting, is the intricacies with which his character is detailed. He's one of the more complex personalities put on screen in some time: witty, sarcastic, angry, depressed, lonely and sick, his duress entitles him to a wisdom that most viewers won't grasp, and likely shouldn't. That's fine though, because the trip the film takes makes it so worthwhile. Everything being from Bauby's skewed perspective is crucial to telling the tale, and his perceptions aid in making the movie as insanely visual as it is as well. Whether he's overwhelmed, happy, or feeling vitriolic and argumentative, it comes across not just in his interactions with the other characters, but with what we see happening in his mind. He's clearly fiercely intelligent and angularly sly, while world weary and exhausted, and we're given focus of such events that have brought him to this point.

Once it's established that Bauby has been severely handicapped, it's also established that before the incident he wasn't necessarily a role model to look up to. We see hints at his past come through in fragments of other scenes colliding upon where he resides in the present. Showing us scenarios with those from his life whether a miniscule thing like an Elle photo shoot he remembers or something weightily significant like giving his elderly father a shave. Ultimately one of the things I love most about the film is how these past nuances all flow effectively to detail the progression Bauby makes within his spirit during his ailing times. The conveyance of all that emotion by Amalric never seems contrived and lays squarely on the side of genuine. All of Bauby's supposed nuances and mannerisms belong to Amalric here, a performance that should be noted for some time to come.

What I think is most highly rewarding about the Diving Bell and the Butterfly, though, is the sheer simplicity of the tale. It's actually rather heartbreaking if you're unfamiliar with the true story, at least once you realize what's going to happen. Getting to that point, though, is easily one of the best times I've had watching a film in a long while. It's a genuinely affecting account of someone who faces odds so insurmountable most real people in the predicament would either give up entirely or never come to terms with what it is they left behind. The courage to live a life compared depressingly to being entombed in a bulky diving suit the likes we haven't used since the turn of the last century is commendable, even more so when the person living that life manages to embrace his situation and rectify what he can. It's wholly inspiring, especially in its refusal to succumb to showing us the dismal and hopeless, rather focusing on embracing life, both what's past and what little left is still to come.

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