The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The nominations:

  • Achievement in Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
  • Achievement in Directing: Julian Schnabel
  • Achievement in Film Editing: Juliette Welfling
  • Adapted Screenplay: Screenplay by Ronald Harwood

The Black-and-White:

This movie is nominated in some weighty categories (original screenplay, directing, cinematography) and that in itself is an impressive achievement for a foreign language film. But as impressive as those nominations are, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly deserves more; it deserves to win.

The synopsis from

When fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffers a stroke at the age of forty-five, he is left almost completely paralyzed. As he attempts to reconcile himself to his devastating condition, Bauby draws on his imagination to create a vivid inner world without limitations, and–able to communicate only by blinking his left eye–begins the daunting task of dictating a book.

Based loosely on a true story, this adaptation is one of the most unique movies I have seen in a long, long, long time.

The first challenge of this film is to tell the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine, author, and victim of locked-in syndrome, an affliction that suddenly left Jean-Do with almost complete physical paralysis, able only to blink and move one eye. However, that is only part of the triumph of this film. The most audacious challenge of the film was to tell the story from his perspective.

The film succeeded with some of the most inventive and interesting cinematography I have seen to date. Ever. Much of the movie shows the events from Jean-Do’s perspective; blurry, unfocused, limited in scope. In doing so, it completely captures the viewer into his world, into the narrative of the story, and enraptures us in this chapter of his life.

I will admit, for the first part of the film I was thinking to myself that the blurred, wandering shots were annoying, and I was wondering how in the world I could tolerate this for the rest of the movie. Only later did I realize that that was exactly the point; the pain, frustration and discomfort I was feeling surely was orders of magnitude less than what Jean-Do must have felt. However, this unique technique allowed me at least a glimpse into his world, and a small understanding of the frustration he must have felt. In doing so, I willingly engaged in his journey. This, and the cinematography throughout the film were, I think, the most successful use of the camera to tell the story that I have ever seen.

The acting as well was outstanding. So much of the actors’ performances were given directly into the camera, following the original vision of the cinematography of the film, and that’s a difficult performance. Think about it: in most performances, there is an actor/actress to play off; their reactions sculpt and evolve the performances. Here, since the camera was the view of the world from Jean-Do’s eyes, the performances were given right next to the lens. No one was on the other side except the camera operator, the director, and the crew. And the performances were, without exception, outstanding, despite absence of a foil of another actor/actress to play upon.

In my mind this achievement, if nothing else, gives Julien Schnabel a leg-up in the Directing category. Combined with his vision for how to invite us into Jean-Do’s world, for the outstanding cinematography, and for enabling a compelling film of a tremendously difficult original text, there is no doubt in my mind he deserves the Oscar for Achievement in Directing.

Bottom lines:

A definite nod for directing is deserved.

The cinematography was outstanding, but I recognize this is a tough category this year — nevertheless, this film deserves to win, but Atonement and No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are deserving choices as well. My vote goes to Diving Bell, for the sheer originality in capturing us in the story, simply by making creative choices of what we see. This is a cinematic breakthrough.

Adapted screenplay? I am still amazed that they found a way to take us into Jean-Do’s world. To make a story of someone who can only blink riveting, compelling and enlightening. If ever there was an original story that is NOT suitable for the big screen, this is it. But Ronald Harwood made it more than work. He hit a home run, on an incredibly difficult pitch. No doubt, a nod is deserved here.

Film editing? A no-brainer. Combining the complex elements of the shots, the performances, and the complete success in putting together so much complex footage into such a compelling films leads me to conclude: this is the standard for film editing. This is what is possible. Enjoy the Oscar – you may not win (ug, I fear No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood will win), but you should. You should win in every category in which you were nominated.

Closing thoughts: there are many of my favorite movies — movies I count among the best of all time — that I eagerly await to see again. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly takes its place among them, partially for technical reasons, and partially for acting and execution: this is one of the most original and provocative films I have ever seen.


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