Best French Films - Cinéma Saturday is back with a French film gem
This week, we're much further away from Paris. In fact we are exploring one of the most beautiful films I've seen. Frequently ranked as one of the best films of the 21st century, this Golden Globe and BAFTA winner and critically revered film might be just the film you've been looking for. Full of humanity and an inspirational story, this is what David Denby of the The New Yorker called 'nothing less than the rebirth of cinema.'
We might call an arthouse classic, we might call it Hollywood France, this week's film is magnificently The Diving Bell and the Butterfly / Le Scaphandre et le Papillon.
I remember seeing it in a special UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and being completely mesmerised by the emotionally affecting story, beautiful cinematography and direction and the wonderful acting performance son the cast. Cinema is so powerful! It's where we can tell some our greatest stories. I miss the cinema so much.
Let's find out more about this beautiful film and its remarkable true-life story.
Cast & Crew
Director: Julian Schnabel
Cast: Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Marie-Josee Croze, Mathieu Amalric, Max von Sydow, Niels Arestrup, Patrick Chesnais
Screenplay: Ronald Harwood
Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski
Awards & Accolades: Cannes - Nominated, Palme d'Or; Winner - Best Director. Golden Globes Winner for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film. Nominated for Best Screenplay.
Oscar-nominated for: Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Screenplay - Adaptation.
At 43, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the rakishly successful and charismatic editor in chief of French Elle was a man defined by his passion for life. On December 1995, he suffered a massive stroke and his brain stem was rendered inactive. In these few bewildering moments, his life was forever changed. After lapsing into a coma, he awoke 20 days later to find himself the victim of a rare locked-in syndrome - mentally alert but permanently deprived of movement and speech.
Refusing to accept his fate, Bauby determined to escape the paralysis of his diving bell and free the butterflies of his dreams and imagination. The only way he could express his frustration, however, was by moving his left eye. These movements and blinking a code representing letters of the alphabet became his sole means of communication.
Mathieu Amalric on the validity of this adaptation:
"I wondered how a film of this book could be made. (...) When I met Julian Schnabel, I immediately sensed his need to direct the film. I said to myself, maybe there's some way we can avoid being crooks and exploiting someone's misfortune. I understood that it was possible. Besides, I saw how Julian was working with the script: we weren't just coloring in the pictures, on the set; we were going to invent more. The more I think about it, the more I realize one didn't necessarily have to be an actor for this film, just a human being."
What I liked about this film
Stunningly beautiful, this film is a film of contrasts and deeply human experiences like a sensory journey of sorts. A reminder to break out of limitations, to be human, mindful, in-the-moment through a terrifying ordeal. The cast performances are as sublime as they oceanic shades of blue and green to which we are treated in the scenes at the seaside hospital where Bauby lived for the latter part of his life. The late, great Max von Sydow gives a beautiful performance in the role of Bauby's father. Mathieu Amalric is simply superb in this role, which asked so much of him to transform physically into the Locked-In Bauby.
The film is almost two halves - a life of freedom, Parisian pleasures and high fashion, high society life for Bauby as the Editor of Elle magazine. Later, waking form a coma, he discovers his life has changed irrevocably and no one can hear him. He is trapped inside his body with no means of communicating, or so we think. He later uses a means of blinking to spell out words and as well as enabling day-to-day interactions, this enables him to dictate his memoirs. After the publication of the book, he died 10 days later. His story is remarkable, tragic, somehow life-affirming through the misery that could have led this man to give up entirely. The treatment of these contrasting lives and experiences, the pain and joy of a life fully lived is beautiful realised. Inspiring and beautiful, it's not hard to see why the film was so critically acclaimed and why it continues to offer so much to film-lovers everywhere such as in this review.
Surely we all need powerful stories of imagination, humanity and love right now more than ever?
Many years after seeing this film, it emerged (for those outside of Paris society circles) that the director may have taken some considerable artistic licence in the creative changes to Bauby's relationships and family. Not only adding another child in the casting, but also changing the action of key characters like Bauby's mistress/partner/girlfriend who has been, somewhat understandably, pained in trying to put the record straight. You can make up your own mind about the truth.
In my opinion, it doesn't make much difference to the storytelling of the film if you don't know any of the people depicted, but I can understand how many people were disappointed or outraged. Watch the film to make your mind up!
Where to Find It
Often quite hard to find on disc, I've done my best to find links for you to easily go on to watch this film. I managed to buy a secondhand copy last year as I realised I hadn't seen it for ages. Perhaps you might also find a secondhand copy or a library one.
Here are the links to DVD and streaming services
Available to stream via Amazon Prime Video on Cinemax.
Available on MUBI on Amazon Prime Video
Have you seen this film? Did you like it? Let me know what you thought by email: hello at francewhereyouare dot com or over on social media.
I love to talk cinema!
And when they're closed, I love to talk home cinema. 😉