about the film
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is probably one of the, if not the, most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen. It’s the real-life story of Elle magazine director Jean-Dominique Bauby, who got a stroke, got completely paralyzed and then went on to write his own biography through communicating with only the blinking of his eye. The movie works on all levels, getting career-best results out of all participants. Director Julian Schnabel has never made a better picture in my opinion, combining beautiful, surreal imagery, with amazing acting to create on of the most life-affirming films I’ve seen.
The cinematography here is from the hand of Janusz Kamiński, not a small name by any measure. He’s more or less the go-to cinematographer of director Steven Spielberg since Schindler’s List (1993), lensing films such as Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005), Minority Report (2002) etc. It is Kamiński who is often credited with giving Spielberg’s films a more realistic, edgy look (Spielberg had been known to often use backlighting to make his scenes look more romantic and beautiful). Just think about the harsh handheld camera work Kamiński did in Schindler’s List and especially Private Ryan.
Though his work in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is less harsh, and definitely more dreamlike, you can still recognize Kamiński’s touch in his experimental flourishes throughout the film. In Saving Private Ryan Kamiński used tons of different technique’s too make the film look more like a newsreel. It wasn’t just a case of filming handheld, he increased the shutter speed to make the movements more choppy, he took away the protective layers of lenses to create light leaks, and he did that famous bleach-bypass technique in post-production to desaturate the footage until it was almost monochrome in color.
In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Kamiński similarly used a lot of experimental techniques to convey the story. This time the focus was on the first-person experience of being ‘caged in’ (fully paralyzed) and the way the human mind slowly can escape into imagination and fantasy. So you see Kamiński use these harsh shifts in focus and exposure (achieved by handholding the lens in front of the camera-mount at twisting it around, a technique that nowadays is quite popular among the DSLR-filmmakers, who started calling it ‘Lens Whacking’) too simulate the wandering eye of Jean-Do as he frantically searches the space around him for interaction.
But it is in the frequent fantasy-sequences of Jean-Do where Kamiński really starts to play. You see all these strange images of dreamlike situations, sometimes very simple and concrete (like a woman’s long hair being blown wildly into the camera by the wind), to completely abstract images (like a diver, drifting through dense muddy water, unable to move, a literal reference to the title and the feeling of being ‘caged in’).
The great thing about these shots is that, surreal as they may be, they’re almost always grounded in reality, that is to say; there’s a connection with reality. Kamiński is able to find the surreal in the real so to speak. He finds that one weird light, that strange detail in the corner, that was always there, but doesn’t really show itself until you film it properly.
If this blog was named ‘One Scene’ I would probably pick the scene where we flashback to a moment where Almaric’s Bauby is shaving his father. If there ever was a better example of effective storytelling I cannot recall it. In just a few minutes, their strenuous, but sincerely loving relationship comes across, using the act of shaving as a metaphor for their whole relationship.
I never realized how much meaning can be put into such a simple act, but then again, you are putting a knife on someone’s throat. That scene is directed so perfectly that later on, when the father tries to speak with his paralyzed son, we need next to nothing to understand their shared pain.
But brilliant as that scene may be, this blog is about a single shot, and that single shot is found elsewhere. As all of my favorite shots, this one combines literal beauty and artistic vision with a strong resonating emotional response. It’s not only gorgeous, it immediately communicates its message, even if you’ve never seen the rest of the movie. Here it is:
The context of the shot is that Jean-Do is spending a day on the beach with his ex-wife and children, celebrating father’s day. As they kids play around, his ex-wife starts talking to him, and we see through his eyes his desire to interact with her, to hold her maybe, kiss her, or just talk with her, but he can’t and when she starts to pronounce the letters of the alphabet out loud (the way in which she has to communicate with him) the camera slowly pans away, as Jean-Do no doubt also lets his mind wander off.
The camera pans to the sea, and we see a wooden rising further on up the beach. Then we jump into the surreal and in comes the shot where Jean-Do imagines himself sitting there, as the sea engulfs the rising. While a Tom Waits song is echoing in the distance, the camera, very slowly, zooms in, but we remain at a great distance. It’s just Jean-Do, in a wheelchair, surrounded by the sea, with no way of leaving his confined space.
The claustrophobic sense of being confined to a small space can be conveyed in first person by narrow depth of field, frantic movement of the frame, maybe some sounds of heavy breathing and extreme close-ups of troubled eyes. That gives the real sense of feeling trapped, but it doesn’t portray the isolation from the world around you. To portray that disconnect, you need to zoom out, and place your character in a wider frame, where he/she is minimized. That is what Kamiński does so beautifully here. Instead of creating claustrophobia (as he does earlier on in the film), he shifts his focus on showing the isolation.
The thing is, he does it while also making it look beautiful. There is an almost serene quality to seeing Jean-Do up there, in the middle of the sea. As if he’s floating, maybe drifting away. The colors are warm, and Jean-Do’s yellow & red outfit fits right in that warm, autumn feeling.
And finally, though shot is surreal and dreamlike, it connects so well with its context. It’s not just a random image pushed into the film, it connects to its context, fits in with the mood of the scene around it, and feels completely logical.
To me, when working with surreal imagery, that is key to making it work. You’ve got to base it in reality for your audience to connect to it. Make them understand where the image comes from. How does it connect to reality, to the thoughts of your characters, to the mood of the story? Another filmmaker who understands surreal filmmaking in this way is David Lynch, whom I will no doubt cover in an upcoming blogpost. But Janusz Kamiński does it beautifully here, and that’s why this is my One Shot of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.