Despite an exceptionally creative directorial approach, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly can’t climb above the “good” threshold, primarily due to extreme monotony. For the opening 45 minutes or so, Schnabel’s depiction of stroke victim Jean-Dominique Bauby’s self-reinvention through a single eye is fascinating and gripping. The first blink, the first post-paralysis encounter with his wife, the first meeting with the beautiful nurse…each “first” carries an intensity entirely unique to Schnabel’s vision. Unfortunately, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly rapidly tapers off in effectiveness about 40% of the way through. As we wait for everything to unfold, the proceedings become tedious, and second, third, and fourth dictation sessions and family visits lack the cinematic verve of their predecessors. The screenplay’s repetitive nature drags a potentially great 80 minute picture way down.
From a technical standpoint, there’s not much to complain about here. Schnabel’s use of close-ups is masterful, and he manages to get great traction from the first-person perspective: a notoriously difficult chore, as evidenced by past failures such as 1947′s Lady in the Lake. The music is subtly appropriate, and the nod to The 400 Blows during a flashback sequence is a great touch. However, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is oddly cold, choosing a clinical approach to its sensitive topic matter over an emotional one. This succeeds in keeping the film free of sentimentality, but it also prevents the viewer from becoming especially invested in Bauby’s world. It’s a reasonable stylistic choice—the significantly less ambitious A Mighty Heart utilized a similar approach earlier this year—but in this instance, it holds The Diving Bell and the Butterfly back from sniffing greatness.