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With a Sad Subject, 'Diving Bell' Surprisingly Funny


It's not often that a director learns a new language just to make a film, but Julian Schnabel learned French to direct "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Perhaps, that endeared him to the Cannes Film Festival where he won best director. Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic, Kenneth Turan says it was a wise decision all round.

KENNETH TURAN: Jean-Dominique Bauby's 1997 memoir couldn't be more unfilmable. The author dictated it, letter by letter, by blinking his left eye. That was the only part of his body that was not paralyzed after he suffered a catastrophic stroke that left his functioning brain trapped in an inert body.

Director Julian Schnabel has taken the story and made an imaginative film that joins an unexpected sense of possibility to the inevitable sense of loss. Schnabel started out as a painter, and he has an imaginative feeling for rich imagery. The director also has the same kind of enthusiasm for life as Bauby. So it was clear that "Diving Bell" was going to be the most alive film its creators could imagine.

It's also funny. The film has taken pains to retain the fearlessly sarcastic tone of the author who gleefully compares early attempts by therapists to bundle him into a wheelchair, to movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer's body into the trunk of their car.

The film is largely shot from the paralyzed man's point of view, so we see what he sees, which turns out to be close-ups of all the women in his life. It is the film's true notion, to make each one more beautiful than the next. One of these women constructs a board that lists the letters of the alphabet by the frequency with which they come up in French. The letters are spoken aloud.

(Soundbite of movie, "Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in French)

TURAN: And Bauby blinks at the one he wants.

(Soundbite of movie, "Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in French)

TURAN: Perhaps the most unexpected thing about "Diving Bell" is that this constant repetition of spoken letters becomes - via the use of the supremely melodic French language - an almost sensual pleasure.

(Soundbite of movie, "Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in French)

TURAN: Finally finished with his pages, Bauby anxiously blinks the question, does that make a book? Indeed, it does and an unexpected film as well.

MONTAGNE: The movie is "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Kenneth Turan reviews movies for the Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.
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