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Quadriplegic injuries have been popular fodder for movies in the last few years. Mar Adentro and Million Dollar Baby explored the lengths to which people with the condition will go to end their lives. It’s an emotional experience watching either of those films and frankly more than a little depressing. I’m not complaining about that fact. Stories addressing such huge personal difficulties should leave you thought provoked and a little drained. For once, though, it’s nice to see a film where the challenges don’t add up to a character wanting to end it all.
Jean-Dominique Bauby had it all: a loving family, an invigorating career and a passion for living life. And it all changed in the blink of an eye, no pun intended. But, I get ahead of myself. Following a massive stroke Bauby found himself the victim of locked-in syndrome, a condition where he could see and hear everything around him, but was unable to move anything but a few facial muscles. His only means of communicating was blinking his left eye.
Director Julian Schnabel took bold steps in bringing the story to the screen, running with screen play writer Ronald Harwood’s interpretation of the book. The movie is based on Bauby’s autobiography in which he poetically journals his time as a man trapped in his own body. It’s one thing to read his words and envision that experience in your own mind; it’s something completely different to try and show that on film. Schnabel’s effort was so successful that Cannes dubbed him best director of the year.
Yes, the movie is in French. Yes, it’s filmed in a stylized manner, the kind that makes art-house film fans wet themselves with glee but tends to send the rest of us into fits of boredom. Tack on that the folks at Cannes drooled all over it and that’s three strikes and it’s out, right? Wrong. Schnabel doesn’t once forget that he’s telling a story, a very personal one at that. From the very first confusing frames to the movie’s bittersweet ending, it’s a telling even the average movie-goer could enjoy.
A team of therapists worked to help Bauby recover, but the closest he came to healing was the release he found in writing. His speech therapist devised a system that allowed him to express letters and form words by blinking his one good eye. Clinging to the two things that still worked, his imagination and his memory, he reached out from his “diving bell” and dictated his thoughts one blink at a time.
The process was tedious, but the movie avoids the tedium as it alternates between scenes of Bauby working on his book and exploring his relationships to those around him. Moving moments of genuine sadness and frustration, like watching his young son have to wipe the drool from his mouth, are offset by moments of comic frustration like when the nurse turns off the soccer game at a pivotal moment and Bauby can do nothing but look at her and blink furiously. The movie doesn’t pull any punches, but it doesn’t abandon Bauby’s sense of humor to play on your sympathies either.
I laughed, I cried (a little) and at the end I smiled in spite of myself. It was nice to watch a film about a quadriplegic where the theme was life, not death. Don’t be fooled by the movie’s art house trappings and foreign language. It’s a smart drama told in an unorthodox way. If the man was willing to spend 200,000 blinks and two minutes per word to send his story from the prison of his own body, the least you could do is give the movie version a shot.
Thank goodness for subtitles. I don’t speak French but that doesn’t mean I want to listen to a bunch of English speaking voice-over actors try and recreate performances in front of a microphone either. The main character was French. The book was written in French. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy the movie in French. The English subtitle translations are well phrased and easy to read. It’s the best way to watch the film and I highly encourage you to give it a shot, no matter how much you hate reading.
For those of you who pigheadedly refuse subtitles, the DVD obliges you. I listened to the English voice-over for a while, and even though some of the actors provide both their French and English dialogue, it’s still not the same. Use it if you must. If Spanish is your language of choice, you have your own set of dialogue and voice-over as well.
Julian Schnabel is kind enough to provide a commentary, but his random interjections, tendency to ramble, and nearly monotone voice seem more like a French art-house experience than the film does. He doesn’t come off particularly intelligent or inspiring and I was left wondering how this guy could pull together such an interesting film.
My impression of the director was saved by the movie’s two documentary featurettes. In Submerged: the Making of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly you get a glimpse at the real director, both from behind the camera shots and from the praises of actors, producers and crew members. The second featurette, Cinematic Vision, explores some of the unique lengths to which Schnabel pushes the idea of seeing the movie from Bauby’s perspective. Skip the commentary. Watch these instead.
Lest we forget that Schnabel was the one who won all the awards, the DVD includes an interview that the director had with Charlie Rose after the movie was released. If you’re really into learning more about this guy and how his mind works, give it a watch. Otherwise, it’s just icing on the cake for folks who want to be able to discuss Schnabel intelligently at the water cooler (you know, for the times when Lost and Desperate Housewives conversations dry up and you naturally move on to award winning foreign film directors).
Normally, such a small list of extra features would leave me wanting, but with this movie it’s just the right amount. The film itself isn’t flowery or excessive, so why should its DVD package be any different? It may not be the sort of thing you’d shell out $20 for, but definitely put it on your “to rent” list for sometime when you’re looking for something different.
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