Imagine only being able to communicate through blinking. Now imagine trying to dictate your memoirs in this grueling and time-consuming fashion. That’s how Jean-Dominique Bauby had to put his life and thoughts down on paper. The editor of French Elle suffered a stroke so severe that it rendered him almost entirely paralyzed for the remainder of his short life. He died less than 18 months later just days after the publication of his 1997 memoirs. Making amends for his laughable adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera Ronald Hardwood pays homage to Bauby’s remarkable achievement with an eloquent screenplay that examines the power of the mind over the body. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly begins on the day when Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wakes up from a coma and is alarmed to find himself in a hospital completely paralyzed and unable to speak. But his mind is sharp as it ever was. Flashbacks reveal Bauby to be a man who lived life to the fullest and relished every challenge that came his way. So being stuck in a body that no longer functions as it once did is clearly pure hell for Bauby--until his therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) teaches Bauby to communicate by blinking his left eye. Bauby suddenly decides to honor a book contract he had signed before his stroke--and in the process he discovers his raison d’être. Like My Left Foot’s Daniel Day-Lewis before him Amalric indelibly proves that the mind can and will thrive even when the body is broken and beyond repair. Amalric though has less to work with than the wild-eyed Day-Lewis who had the luxury of drawing you into his performance by tapping into Irish author Christy Brown’s abrasive personality and larger-than-life presence. It’s mesmerizing to watch the intrepid Amalric at work even though he’s practically motionless for the entire film bar for a few flashbacks. While the rest of his face remains frozen solid Amalric eloquently expresses Bauby’s innermost hopes and fears through the mere blink of his left eye. There’s never a time when you don’t know how Bauby feels. And his narration is laced with gallows humor which helps keep Diving Bell free from drowning in sentimentality. As Bauby’s therapist Croze personifies patience dedication and resourcefulness we all expect and demand from health-care professionals but don’t always receive. Emmanuelle Seigner maintains a brave face as Bauby’s neglected wife Céline. You wait for Céline to crumble especially as Bauby never stops asking about his mistress but Seigner reveals Céline to be caring and forgiving. The most heartbreaking moments come between Amalric and Max von Sydow who plays Bauby’s father who is much trapped inside his apartment as Bauby is inside his body. There’s great sadness and regret to be found in von Sydow’s every word as he comes to the painful realization that he will outlive his rich and successful son which no father wants to do. Yes Diving Bell is the latest in a long line of inspirational fact-based films about physically and/or mentally challenged people mastering their disabilities. But director Julian Schnabel distinguishes himself and the film by shooting the first act solely from Babuy’s perspective. We see everything Bauby sees through his one good eye from the moment he comes out of his coma. What follows is confusing disorienting and taxing. And darkly humorous as evidenced by Bauby’s admiration of his females nurses. Schnabel’s approach though works to dramatic effect because we receive a greater understanding and appreciation of what Bauby’s experiencing. Stay the course and you will be rewarded for your patience. Once Bauby comes to terms with his fate and refuses to spend the rest of his days wallowing in self pity Schnabel finally turns his camera on Bauby to reveal his post-stroke physical appearance. It’s a quiet but ingenious way for us to accept Bauby as he accepts himself. Schnabel then concentrates on Bauby’s Herculean effort to dictate his autobiography which is occasionally interrupted by poignant flights of fantasy (it’s not hard to guess what the diving bell and the butterfly symbolize). Equal amounts of joy and regret are be found in Bauby’s reminiscing but Schnabel never tries to romanticize his subject or ignore to his past transgressions. Diving Bell doesn’t set to turn a flawed man into a hero but Bauby’s will and determination ultimately reinforces the notion that anything’s possible if you set your mind to it.
After Mr. Bean (Atkinson)--he of the prominent ears nearly wordless communication and tendency for goofy pratfalls--wins a camcorder and a trip to Cannes in a church raffle he cheerfully heads off to France taping himself every minute of the way. His need to document his holiday on film leads to a missed train for a fellow passenger whose son Stepan (Max Baldry) is already on board. Bean feels responsible for the scared boy and attempts to help him reach his dad--but naturally since this is Bean we're talking about everything goes awry. It takes a chance encounter with lovely Mini Cooper-driving French ingénue Sabine (Emma de Caunes) to get Bean and Stepan back on track. In the midst of the requisite comedy set pieces everything comes to a head at the Cannes Film Festival during the premiere of egotistical filmmaker Carson Clay's (Willem Dafoe) latest "masterpiece." If you've ever seen Rowan Atkinson do Mr. Bean you know what to expect from this movie. He twists his flexible face into various grimaces pops his eyes in alarm/surprise/anger/wonder/happiness grunts and burbles his way through his few actual conversations and contorts his body for any number of physical gags. In other words he's hardly subtle. But if you like Bean you'll be tickled by this performance; Atkinson gives the character--and the movie--his all. De Caunes is a nice surprise as Sabine a warm friendly woman whose enthusiasm and low-key earthiness make her a good foil for Bean's antics. And Baldry is quite endearing in his basic "cute kid" role. But perhaps the most entertaining supporting cast member is Dafoe who seems to take extraordinary pleasure in sending up a particular type of self-centered self-righteous indie filmmaker. Parts of Mr. Bean's Holiday evoke classic silent comedies--Bean barely talks for one thing and his interactions with young Stepan are almost Chaplin-esque at times. When the unlikely twosome is working together (notably performing an impromptu aria in a village square and dressing up in women's clothes to sneak into Cannes) the film is at its most charming; Bean is much more sympathetic as the boy's protector than he is on his own. Still director Steve Bendelack does give Bean a few strong solo set pieces particularly a bike chase through the French countryside. Unfortunately too much of what comes in between these highlights drags: Bean's predictably "ewww"-inducing seafood lunch for example or the jerky footage from the “Bean cam.” Even slapstick-loving kids may find themselves rolling their eyes when Bean rolls his for the umpteenth time.
The Science of Sleep starts off simple enough: Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) is hosting a subconscious cooking show set in the depths of his mind and on today’s program he’s making a stew whose ingredients comprise his dreams--pretty standard really. As for the goings-on outside mind Stephane has just moved to Paris to take on what he thinks is a job as a graphic artist only to learn that it’s a mundane office job. But at least his coworker Guy (Alain Chabat) provides ample entertainment. At home his new next-door neighbors Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Zoe (Emma de Caunes) keep his mind occupied perhaps too much. After giving up his quasi-crush for the more outgoing Zoe Stephane turns his efforts to Stephanie who is a lot like him. He falls for her but his love is unrequited. Things are further complicated when Stephane can no longer distinguish between his prolific dream life and his lovelorn flesh-and-blood one. Cue the cooking show. In movies like The Science of Sleep half the battle for actors would seem to be keeping their bearings of continuity amidst scenes that are to say the least non-linear. But these actors could handle this heady stuff in their um sleep. And Bernal--he of arguably the best resume of any working actor (including his role in upcoming drama Babel)--sorta does! He only adds to that resume with Sleep in which he handles with care the childlike energy set forth by the script but also does tormented well. The women in the film do nothing to dispel the assumption that all Frenchwomen are naturally beautiful--and “They’re all good actresses” is perpetuated here as well. Gainsbourg (21 Grams) daughter of music legend Serge leads the way. She is oftentimes the impetus behind Stephane’s dreams only to make stirring cameos in them. The predominantly French supporting cast plays similar roles with similar success. The Science of Sleep writer-director Michel Gondry is a happy mad genius. Like some auteurs of his mad-genius ilk he acknowledges and touches upon life’s morose side but it’s as if the sun is shining down on him even during his darkest moments. It’s what gives Sleep its distinctiveness insofar as the story succeeds and it gave his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind its eternal sunshine. Sleep is to be considered a sort of autobiography--and nothing short of pure genius. Gondry’s story of pristine wonderment with the complexity of love and that complexity of love in turn spurring rampant subconscious activity seems highly personal and visceral. As for the visuals Gondry’s true specialty they’re beyond breathtaking and not unlike a child’s imagination set into motion. Gondry the music enthusiast--see Dave Chappelle's Block Party and countless music videos--also makes appearances offering choice selections from right off his elite client roster including The White Stripes.