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Diving for the butterfly

Posted at 5:30 PM on December 20, 2007 by Euan Kerr


In Julian Schnabel's THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, Marie-Josée Croze is Jean-Dominique Bauby's speech therapist, Henriette. (Photo Credit: Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films)

Ali Selim admits he is on a campaign. The director of "Sweet Land" says he wants as many people as possible to see "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." He says that as people rush to see "Juno" and "The Kite Runner" he's worried Julian Schnabel's film will get ignored. Which he says would be a shame because he thinks it's the best film for the year.

It is a remarkable piece of cinema, capturing the frustration of catastrophic disability in a profound way, without sentimentality. The true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the Parisian fashion magazine editor struck down by a stroke in his forties, which left him totally paralyzed except for his left eyelid. His struggle to communicate, and tell his story through a memoir is remarkable in it's courage and honesty. Bauby is no saint, and some of the films most breathtaking moments come when he is being a complete jerk.

This is one of those films which keeps leaping back into your consciousness days after you see it. One of the ways Bauby combats the boredom of being locked in his body (his condition is called shut-in syndrome) is to let his mind wander, through memories and fantasies. Director Schnabel, who began his career as a painter, creates a visual feast, which makes the return to the scenes where we see life from Bauby's monocular perspective all the more jarring.

Yes, this is a tear-jerker, but it's also a remarkable story of hope and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Charles Trenet. His classic song "La Mer" is used to open the film. The story goes he wrote it in 10 minutes while on a train rolling through the French countryside in 1946. He didn't have a notebook, so the lyrics were scrawled on a piece of toilet paper grabbed from the restroom.

It's a romantic ballad about waves and clouds and things, but it's one of those songs which heightens the experience of watching any film where it appears on the soundtrack. You may have heard it during such diverse offerings as "Mr Bean's Holiday," "Finding Nemo," "Man of the Year" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" to just name just a few from recent years.

Here it is: enjoy.

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