*The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (PG-13)
Kimball's Twin Peak
It's the season for film critics to make bold, declarative statements about what we consider the best of the year. Here's my go at it: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the best film of 2007. (Though we're just getting it now, its U.S. release actually was Nov. 30.)
Julian Schnabel's poetic masterpiece about hope and despair is a life-affirming journey through the mind of one man, former French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Munich's Mathieu Amalric). After suffering a stroke that puts him in a coma for nearly three weeks, Jean-Do awakes only to be diagnosed with "locked-in syndrome," a condition that spares his beautiful mind but paralyzes his body save for a single eyelid.
After considerable practice and patience, Jean-Do learns to use his eye to communicate, and helped by a trio of angelic therapists (Marie-Jose Croze, Anne Consigny and Olatz L'pez Garmendia), he writes his memoir by painstakingly blinking each word, letter by letter.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) adapts said memoir and tells Jean-Do's story by allowing the viewer to experience it through his eyes. Characters drift in and out of the frame as Jean-Do is unable to move his head to follow them, putting the emphasis on their words rather than their actions.
Veteran cinematographer Janusz Kaminski plumbs the depths of Jean-Do's conscience with claustrophobic camerawork that helps us feel what it's like to be utterly helpless and dependent on sheer imagination to escape the confines of a wheelchair.
Schnabel is most comfortable exploring these abstract flights of fancy. An artist in the truest sense of the word, he infuses the story with images of falling glaciers and similar metaphoric expressions that appropriately convey Jean-Do's alternately fragile emotional state and mental resolve. He also has a gift for capturing life's simple pleasures, like how the wind blows his wife's (Emmanuelle Seigner) skirt at the beach.
Schnabel seems to recognize the meaning of life lies in its details, the moments we take for granted every day. This is most evident during a beautiful flashback in which Jean-Do shaves his father (Max von Sydow) an incredibly simple yet tender scene that speaks volumes about their relationship.
Though Johnny Depp was initially set to play Jean-Do before leaving to film the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, it'd be hard to imagine anyone other than Amalric in the role. He gives a heartbreaking performance of incredible discipline, overwhelming humanity and impressive resolve.
We don't see the character's face until well after the 30-minute mark, but even when Jean-Do is just sitting in his chair, Amalric is nothing short of magnetic. He's so convincing in the role, it's hard to imagine him standing up and talking at the end of a take.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly will do more than blow you away. It is a film unlike any other. The raw emotion and imagination on display here are utterly brilliant.
Aside from being a remarkable tale of unfathomable courage and strength, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an extraordinary portrait of man's desire to leave behind a legacy.
Not only will it make you appreciate life's precious gifts, but it will inspire you to dream. I don't know what more you could ask of a film.