I saw the last ten minutes of Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue on a hotel television recently. It was a grim mixture of complex French interiors, iconic French views, a sweet cat, a lonely man. Every scene had some striking light effect, whether full-on magic hour sunlight or mysterious side lighting. It was too much for me, like those High Dynamic Range photographs you see all over the internet, every pixel bumped up to super saturation so that the end result is like a gaudy painting, nothing like anything a human eye has seen.
Janusz Kaminski's cinematography in Diving Bell shows how this sort of thing should be done. It's emotional shooting, verging on sentimental; it still chases the light, but the colours are real, the beauty of things revealed.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Mathieu Amalric plays the real-life character of Elle editor, Jean-Do, based on his book, which is dictated by blinking his eye as a list of letters is read to him, one by one. He suffers from Locked-in Syndrome, where he can hear, think and remember things as he used to but due to his paralysis eye blinks are his only possible interaction with the outside world.
Now you might think that the first and only sentence Jean-Do would dictate using this method would be, "Morse Code, FFS," but the letter technique seems to be the way they really did it.
Review continues below...
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Most films based on real-life stories seem paradoxically less realistic, as screenplay writers insist on tidying up events. Perhaps because it is based on Jean-Do's book and he didn't have anything to lose, the messiness of real life comes across. He wants to see his mistress even after his ex-partner and mother of his children has spent hours with him. People come out with crass things. His ill father can't say much but manages to say what matters.
Filmed in the hospital where Jean-Do was treated, the film has shots of a Magritte-like quality, especially on the platform that looks out to the sea. There are flashbacks real and made-up as his imagination takes off.
It's interesting to see what a better job Diving Bell makes of the scenes with Jean-Do's sick father than Tim Burton's Big Fish that I recently reviewed. For one thing the father doesn't die. There is a scene where Jean-Do shaves his father that could have been used in Big Fish but where Tim Burton would have had him wielding a cut-throat razor, Julian Schnabel has Jean-Do using a regular men's safety blade.
These moments of good judgement lift Diving Bell. Similarly in the excruciating scene where his ex-partner must speak his message to his mistress over the telephone she doesn't give into the temptation to lie about what he has said.
We hear passages from his book. The sentences are full of adjectives and adverbs. If there was ever a writer who would've benefited from cutting out the adjectives and adverbs, it was Jean-Do. Hey ho...
Personal Score: 7/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.