The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Reid, 8. February 2008, 21:13 Edit This
Dir. Julian Schnabel

This had one of the highest metacritic scores (92) of last year. Personally, I didn’t care for it, although I didn’t think it was a bad film. My enjoyment of the film was probably a 5, but the direction is solid, so I gvve it a 6. I’m not sure how others would like it, but I’m glad Larri didn’t go with me. (She saw The Bucket List, which she gave a 9/10.) If you’re undecided, I’m going to describe the plot (which won’t take too much away from the film) and make comparisons to other films/stories.

The film is about a man waking up from a 3 week coma. The thing is he’s paralyzed from the neck down. Most of the film is told from that man’s perspective. It’s based on a true story and in that way it is similar to other films like My Left Foot–stories about real people who made a life out of extremely difficult situations.

Initially, I was intrigued by the story, particularly the specific tack the director seemed to choose, namely telling the story strictly from the point of view of the disabled man, Jean-Dominique or “Jean-Do.” When Jean-Do cries, the camera lense gets blurry; when characters speak outside of his vision, since Jean-Do can’t move his head, the characters disappear off-screen. The other thing is that we hear narration from Jean-Do that sounds completely normal. You see, his mind works perfectly, it’s just his body that’s completely disabled. This is an interesting perspective because people can look at victims of a severe stroke and assume that their mind is as crippled as their bodies. Not so with Jean-Do, as the film shows.

One of the main points of the film (at least the point I fixated on) was the cinematic and narrative challenge of filmming from the first person point of view (the camera does this for a lot, but not all of the film). In that way, the film reminded me of the book, The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time (or something to that effect), which is the story told from the perspective of an autistic boy. It’s a neat idea and seeing the world from their perspective is fascinating, but the story and character seemed lacking outside of that.

That’s how I felt about this film. There are touching moments, but I wasn’t really affected by them, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps, I kept thinking about the novelty of telling the story from the point of view of man trapped in his own body. Perhaps, I never really got to know or, as harsh as this may sound, care for the main character. Maybe I lack sympathy. I didn’t care for My Left Foot, too.

2 Responses to “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)”

  1. Kevin


    Hoooo, how can you be a son and a father, and be unmoved? No pun intended. ( Joke, internal movie reference 🙂

    I’ve been catching up on movies while working at my desk, but this one stopped me 15 min. into the movie and had my undivided attention for the rest of the 2 hrs. I recently watched this after having avoiding it for at least a year, admittedly being unmotivated by what little I knew about the movie (it sounded like a long, tough slog) but was really surprised at how much I liked it.

    I think you’re right, though, that the main character is not really likeable, an imperfect man, father, and philanderer, but the movement of the character internal monologue and development going from one place to another provided an arc and drama to the story which I thought was really well-composed. There are hurtful things in Jean-Do’s life that remain unresolved even towards the end, but this was secondary to the larger sense of hope and purpose, and ending of life, to come to terms on.

    Considering myself somewhat decently literate on the visual arts, I have to say I don’t quite understand Julian Schnabel’s (the director) art or have never quite gotten his general schtick ( I didn’t enjoy Basquiat either), but found the form of this movie really pleasing; perhaps, most of all, because the form of it felt deferential to the internal life of the character’s situation (a script based on an autobiographical book.) This seems a pretty different (and circumstantial) approach from his usual painting style.

    Schnabel did also cite 8 1/2 as a reference point, which I also enjoyed. I’ll also have to say, though, that like Fellini’s 8 1/2, it is very much told from a male perspective – not in a misogynistic way, but in ways that women may take offense since here they’re placed as accessory to the story told about the protagonist. It probably adds to this reading that they’re very French, and very beautiful. I also think it’s a male movie in that the relationship between Jean-Dominique and his father seemed to be a pivot point around many of the plot elements. Max Von Sydow appears here and is terrific in the role as his father.

    I hate to jump on the Metacritic bandwagon, but as a reluctant bandwagoneer I’d say this was one of the better films I’ve seen of the 2000’s (if only I’d seen it in that decade). I’d have to think about it before I’d say it made my top 10 of the ’00’s, though.

  2. Reid


    I saw this a while ago, but from I remember being a little bored by the character and his story. His life and relationships seemed like well-covered terrain (typical male problems–particularly with the French?) that the film didn’t really add that much, too, imo. Therefore, the dramatic elements of the story and the character itself didn’t work much for me. I did like the creative way they told the story from the main character’s point of view. (Btw, fwiw, I saw this before Zane was born, but I don’t think it would have affected my reaction much.)

    Do you agree with my comparison to The Curious Case of the Dog at Night and My Left Foot?

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