The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Redux (2007)

After almost 2,5 years it’s finally time for that dreaded moment… to retrace my steps and jump back into a movie I’ve already featured in One Shot. I have tried not to do this up to this point. I’ve repeatedly stated that many of my chosen movies featured several One Shot candidates, but you sort of undermine the idea of this blog if you allow yourself to pick more than one shot per film.

However, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was my second blog post, written way back in november 2013, and I was still working out the format and my ideas about cinematography. I remembered there were several shots from this movie which I had picked as candidates, but some were rejected because the beauty of the shots was mostly based on movement, and as One Shot was Still-based, I couldn’t effectively communicate the beauty of those shots. Now that I use GIFs, I can more effectively present those shots.

But most important of all, I think I made a slight error of judgement in my previous picking. No. Let me rephrase that. I stand behind my choice for the One Shot back then, but as I reflected on my catalogue of posts I do think it would be worthwhile to also present an alternative One Shot. I honestly think that there is another shot that deserves to be featured here as much as the first one. Let me explain why..


The original One Shot

The One Shot

The original One Shot

I picked this shot back in 2013 because of it’s beauty and dreamlike, surreal quality. I praised the shot for showing the emotional isolation our main character experiences because of his paralysis, and also for its surreal quality which is detached from the reality of the scene, yet also connects visually to its environment. The shot is surreal, but not randomly so. This still holds true and I still feel this shot is beautiful and definitely one of the more memorable ones from the film.

But there is one thing that bugs me about the shot. It is still, almost motionless. We have the gentle horizontal movement of the waves and a slight zoom-in, but in the whole the shot expresses a lack of motion. This works, of course, because the shot is meant to express isolation, partly because Jean-Do himself cannot move.

So why does it bug me? Because the shot is actually such a contrast with the general feel and style of the cinematography of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Even though the film tells the story of a paralyzed magazine-editor, who can only blink one of his eyes, the film never feels paralyzed. Even in the claustrophobic opening scenes, when we exclusively are given a first-person perspective from the paralyzed body of Jean-Do, the camera feels organic and vivid. Colors dance, focus flows, images flash in and out of our field of view.

And when the film starts to pick up the story of Jean-Do writing and imagining his life the cinematography really breaks loose. Cameras hang upside down as they film cars passing by, colors pop of the screen, ballet dancers fly through hospital corridors, we get a bee-eye-perspective as we fly over flowers, etcetera. If there is one thing this film is not, it’s static. And I feel that is one of the main reasons why the film is A. so gorgeous, and B. so engrossing. Its unique visual language lifts the material up to a higher level.

So as I reflected on this particular film and my One Shot I realized the problem of my original picking. I had chosen a static image in a film that is memorable for its dynamic cinematography. That is what was wrong with my original choice and why I feel compelled to add to my previous post with a Second One Shot.

The new One Shot
So logically I want to present a more dynamic shot as my new choice. One that contains the visual inventiveness that cinematographer Janusz Kamiński so brilliantly demonstrated in the film, and one that contains the alluring joie de vivre that is contained in its images. For that I decided to to pick the following shot.

The new One Shot choice

This image is used when Jean-Do remembers a vacation trip with a previous girlfriend. As we flow into the flashback we begin hearing a U2 song (one of the many great choices in a flawless soundtrack) and then jump into the past. Jean-Do and his girlfriend are driving through the french alps. But we do not start with an epic establishing shot of their surroundings, or even with a recognizable close up of their faces. Instead, we begin with an abstract image of a woman’s head of hair wildly flying around, presumably from the wind as they drive in their cabriolet.

I love how the flashback starts, not with a wide shot but with an extreme close up, a close up of something that is kind of strange, and at first lacks context. The shot lasts for a good 10 seconds and we only hear the U2 song as we stare at the hair. We are given a moment to really soak up the image and the emotion that it expresses. Which is, to me, to be alive. 

In a film that is filled with dynamic imagery, this is perhaps the most dynamic image. It’s just pure energy and life contained in the wild hair.  And interestingly, because the hair comes so close to the lens, the shot feels as much as a point-of-view shot as many of the other shots in the film. The hair seems to fly in our face as viewers.

A great cinematographer can find the details in a scene that deserve the attention of the camera and then capture them in a way that we, as viewers, could not have imagined. This shot, to me, proves the mastery of Kamiński as he found the most relevant detail in the scene (her hair), and capture it in the most unique way possible (abstract, up close and in-your-face). It is a shot that is filled with life, pleasure, freedom and energy and it should definitely be mentioned as a One Shot alongside my original pick.




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