Monday, 14 December 2009

Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dir Julian Schnabel (2007)

A successful journalist is suddenly afflicted by a severe stroke one day while driving his son in his new car. When he wakes up in the hospital, he finds the only part of his body he can move is his left eyelid, which he proceeds to use to write a memoir.

This seems like an opportunity for some heavy sentimentalising, but Schnabel eschews such an approach, focusing instead on the humour available in the situation. Jean-Dominique Bauby, erstwhile editor of Elle magazine, is no saint. In fact, he's something of a womaniser, and a bit vain to boot.

His immobilised fantasies about the speech therapist, the physiotherapist and the stenographer from the publishing company tickle your funny bone. Then there's the estranged wife with her smooth thighs. Everything that's feminine within the scope of his gaze is ripe for a laugh.

Writing a book one letter at a time might seem an impossibility. But when you think about it, we all waste a lot of time each day. Just writing a page a day would be fair going for any writer. And this is what he's able to accomplish.

Except for Sundays, when the hopspital practically shuts down.

He has plenty of time to dream - and day-dream - in his newly-immobile state. We're taken on a trip by a few flash-backs, and on occasion into a fantasy involving women and/or food.

But these are the least satisfying parts of the movie.

The best bits involve Bauby's wry monologues. These are interior conversations that nobody but the audience can hear. They're brief but to-the-point, and generally include a joke at the expense of whoever is currently within his orbit.

This may be a member of the hospital staff, a visiting friend, or an occasional workman come to install a phone. Whoever is on the receiving end of these grumbled barbs has usually done something insincere or oafish. We're enriched by Bauby's unsentimental gaze.

Overall, a satisfying film, although the pace is a bit uneven. Some scenes just don't fit - such as when he takes a mistress to Lourdes. The anti-religious jokes are just not cruel enough to be funny.

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