★★★★ A lot of films these days are shooting sequences in first person, specifically because that perspective looks great in 3D. This year's Gravity is a prime example, as that technique really immerses you in the narrative. But without the benefit of 3D, a first person camera can still be extremely effective, especially when a filmmaker commits to it as director Julian Schnabel does in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
If Diving Bell was filmed any other way it would be an incredibly depressing film. It's based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffers a stroke and is left with only the use of one eyelid, in what is called locked-in syndrome. But from the film's opening credits, as we examine x-rays to Charels Trenet's light-hearted, La Mer, we know we're in capable hands. And though the seriousness of the subject will not be overlooked, and though we may wipe our eyes a few times throughout the film, we won't be reduced to a puddle of tears by the end.
Jean has the full faculties of his mind but can only move his left eyelid. And through the use of first person cameras, we are stuck inside Jean's head from the beginning. We wake up from the coma with him and find the room is out of focus. Shapes and voices come closer to us and as doctors and nurses begin shining lights. Faces take up the entire frame, and we get extreme closeups of eyes as the doctors examine him. We even look on in horror as his right eye is sewn shut.
We can hear Jean's inner thoughts as he attempts to talk to the doctors, answering their questions, even though he can't speak.
Initially, "Blink once for yes, twice for no," is Jean's only means of communication and the camera blinks to show us his responses. We are truly locked-in in with him. However, along with his left eyelid, his imagination and memory aren't paralyzed, and we escape with him through flashbacks, fantasies, nightmares, and dreams. These sequences allow Jean, and us, to leave his body, but we always come back to Jean's point of view. We're never allowed to escape for too long.
Eventually a therapist comes to work with Jean on his communication, She's devised a system of reading the alphabet in order of the letters used most frequently. When she comes to the letter Jean wants to use, he blinks. Through this method, Jean's world opens up and he is able to communicate with people once again. This alphabet repeats throughout the film becoming a mantra, a chant, a prayer.
Through this method Jean begins to write his memoir. The film uses Jean's voice as narration to give us some passages from the book he'll eventually write, one blink at a time. I read the book before seeing the film and the two go really well together, both complimenting each other and using their medium in ways the other cannot.
There are times when we watch Jean as his visitors do. He sits perfectly still, either in his bed or his wheelchair, and we focus on that one good eye and try to piece together his words that slowly form letter by letter. Amalric does so much acting with just that one eye, it's simply astounding.
Like the book, we don't see how Jean came to be paralyzed in the first place and we keep expecting it to be some accident or tragic event. But it's so much simpler than that. It's just a stroke. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a reminder of how fragile life is; how a medical misfortune can steal away almost everything from us. But Jean shows us that as long as we have an eyelid, our creativity and humanity will not be lost.