Director: Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Consigny, Marie-Josée Croze
Country: France, United States
Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a film that is at once extremely limited and infinitely open. Adapted from the book of the same name, the film dramatizes the experiences of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle who at age 43 suffered a stroke that left his entire body paralyzed save for one eye. Having learned to communicate by blinking, he went on to dictate his book, but died just 10 days after its publication. His story is inherently tragic but, at the same time, and in Schnabel’s assured hands, it is also a story of singular triumph, and the film itself is pure poetry.
In telling the story, Schnabel sticks largely to Bauby’s perspective, literally seeing the world through Bauby’s one functioning eye. It begins with Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) waking from a three month coma, the initial shots hazy and blurred as Bauby struggles to make sense of what is happening around him. Doctors and nurses go about examining him while he tries to speak but realizes that the words exist only in his head. He’s informed that he has “locked-in” syndrome, a rare disability which finds the body disconnected from the brain, but the brain in perfect working order. Faced with the new limitations of his existence, Bauby becomes depressed but begins to rally after his speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), develops a system for him to communicate by blinking his left eye, then passes the reigns of communication off to Claude (Anne Consigny), the woman to whom Bauby will dictate his story and who, in the film’s telling, gives him its title.
Other women in Bauby’s life include Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his three children, and Ines (Agathe de La Fontaine), the girlfriend for whom he left Céline and a woman conspicuous by her absence, glimpsed only briefly and primarily in moments of Bauby’s memories and fantasies, but a major presence in one of the film’s best and most difficult scenes. In that scene Ines calls Bauby’s hospital room to speak with him through his translator, but only Céline is there to help Bauby communicate and must express on his behalf how much Ines means to him. In a similar scene, equally difficult to watch but in a different way, Bauby’s father (Max von Sydow) calls and the two men, each a prisoner by the fact of their limited mobility, are forced to confront their mortality together. Although Almaric’s performance is fenced in by Bauby’s condition and the fact that Schnabel often looks directly through Bauby’s eye, it nevertheless manages to be rich and soulful, expressing the character’s many regrets, his enduring ability to hope and dream, his longing, and most of all his humanity.
Though the subject matter of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is heavy, Schnable brings it off with a weightlessness that is breathtaking. Often the film seems to float on air, exploring Bauby’s experience both in its harsh reality, and in the beautiful images that Bauby’s mind – as free as his body is locked up – conjures up. It is here that the film truly captures the spirit of the story, not limited by the conventions of traditional storytelling, but soaring as high as Schnabel’s abilities as a storyteller can take it. Despite the tragedy of Bauby’s death, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an incredibly uplifting and affirming film, one which manages to hang on the endurance of the human spirit without ever sinking to a cheap “human interest” level. It is a unique and beautiful film without compare.