I’ve just bought myself a coffee percolator. It makes noises like Darth Vader underwater and has made me a tad hyper, both from the excitement of having a new toy to play with and also from drinking an extortionate amount of Columbian coffee. I’ve wanted to get one of these things for ages but never really got round to it. But this week I realised that I might have a massive, unexplained cerebral accident tomorrow and lose the ability to use any of my body save for one eyelid. So I decided that if I wanted a coffee percolator then I’d better bloody get one now before it’s too late.
Of course, such a revelation is weirdly specific (most people going with “I might get hit by a bus”) because of this week’s film, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, which is based on the book written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French Elle magazine editor who suffered a stroke at the age of 43 and fell into what is known as “locked in syndrome”. His brain was still very much intact but his body was a bit rubbish, and he could only communicate via blinking his right eye. It was in this state that he dictated his book, and it gives a fascinating and unsettling insight into his world.
The film is from Bauby’s point of view, often literally. In fact the first half is almost entirely viewed through his one useful eye (the other one is sewn up in a “eeeeeeeeewwwww” moment where we see needle and thread action from the inside of the eyelid) with his internal dialogue guiding us through his emotional journey and flashbacks to his old life adding to the bitterness of his resulting incapacities. It sounds depressing as hell, but there is a comedic line throughout, Bauby retaining his sense of humour as he watches the world from his “diving bell”. Thank god for comedy, as it lifts the sometimes overwhelming sadness into an emotionally powerful but still enjoyable piece of film.
Oscar nominated director Julian Schnabel has a field day (often with the “out of focus button”) but to captivating effect, the blurred, dream-like P.O.V shots merge into Bauby’s imagination, with swirling colours and sweeping images like mini artworks strung together. But rather than stray off into arty-farty zone, Schnabel ties it down in the real world, and the film is sometimes harshly edited between then and now, jarring those emotions again. There was a point where the P.O.V camera blurred up from Bauby’s tears, matching my own blurred vision and that of almost the entire cinema.
Mathieu Amalric masters the difficult lead role, the majority of his performance sieved through a single eyeball. His helpers are a gang of remarkably beautiful ladies (this is the Frenchest of French films). Their performances all superb, especially as one plays a physio - and as we know, all physios are highly intelligent, beautiful and fantastic.
Though it sounds like another foray into depressing foreign film territory, don’t let the subject matter or subtitles turn you away. This film is both uplifting and upsetting, beautifully shot and acted, altogether emotionally gratifying, and will possibly make you go out and buy a coffee percolator. A wholesome film for the soul, it glides in with a CF3. Now then… I might just go make some more coffee.