'Diving Bell': A Fascinating Perspective

In the film, a paralyzed editor (Mathieu Amalric) dictates his memoirs to Claude (Anne Consigny) via blinking.
In the film, a paralyzed editor (Mathieu Amalric) dictates his memoirs to Claude (Anne Consigny) via blinking. (© Bvhe)
By Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

The camera in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" isn't merely a camera. In the hands of director Julian Schnabel and his director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, it provides a window into the world of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a magazine editor who finds himself almost entirely paralyzed after a stroke. He sees the ocean just beyond his hospital bed, the nurses who bob in and out of his field of vision and the loved ones who come, sometimes tentatively, to visit. Since the camera often doubles for his point of view, we, as audience members, share his perspective.

That technique is just one reason "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," on DVD ($29.99) this week, earned four Academy Award nominations this year, including one each for Schnabel and Kaminski. It also provides fodder for what is easily the disc's most fascinating extra, the seven-minute featurette "A Cinematic Vision," which reveals the creative tricks used to reinforce the sense that we are indeed peering at Bauby's surroundings from inside his motionless body.

Film buffs will relish that approach and the result, a movie all the more remarkable because the story it tells is true. After a devastating stroke, Bauby could move only his left eye. He dictated his memoirs, which became the basis of the movie, to his nurse by blinking to tell her which letters to write. Given the film's extraordinary background, it seems odd that the DVD fails to provide even a brief documentary about the real Bauby, who died in 1997, 15 months after his stroke and two days after his book was published.

In its place we get the aforementioned featurette plus a short making-of documentary, an interview with Schnabel that aired on "Charlie Rose" and a slow-paced Schnabel commentary track. Most of the material is occasionally interesting but not solid enough to persuade penny-pinchers to buy the DVD. If the not-quite-excellent extras dissuade some from purchasing it, I hope they won't prevent people from at least renting "Butterfly," which provides the rarest of opportunities: the chance to see the world through someone else's eyes.

Best use of prosthetics in a bonus feature: The "Cinematic Vision" featurette shows us how, in one scene, we are able to see through Bauby's infected eye as it gets stitched up: Schnabel and crew placed a prosthetic eye, complete with lashes, over the lens and sewed the pieces together as the camera rolled to create the illusion of an eye, wide then shut.

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