Words can’t adequately describe how beautiful this film is, nor how moving. It tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), the editor of Elle who at the age of 43 suffered a stroke which left his entire body paralyzed, with the exception of his left eye. Learning to communicate through blinking, he dictated his memoir, also called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which would be published just 10 days before his death. This is a heavy film, but there is also a weightlessness to it that is extraordinary. It is to director Julian Schnabel’s credit that the film so effectively balances the tragic with the triumphant and even, at times, the comedic.
The film is seen largely from Bauby’s perspective, restricted by his own limited mobility. It begins with him waking from a three month coma and the initial shots are hazy and blurred, conveying Bauby’s own confusion at what is happening as doctors and nurses go about examining him. He tries to speak but quickly realizes that the words exist only in his head, that those around him can’t hear him. A specialist explains to him that he has “locked-in” syndrome, a rare disability which finds the body disconnected from the brain but the brain in perfect working order. Bauby is a prisoner in his own body. Early in the film his right eye, from which he can see, is sewn shut because he’s not able to blink and there’s the likelihood that the cornea will turn septic. We see the procedure from inside his head, as he screams for them not to shut his eye. But, of course, only we can hear him and the eye is sewn shut and he becomes more dejected. Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), his speech therapist, develops a system for him to communicate by blinking his left eye. He informs her that he wants to die. Her response, and her persistence, play no small part in rallying him not only to learn to communicate, but to put his story to paper.
Henriette becomes an important woman in Bauby’s life, but there are others as well. Henriette sets the stage for Claude (Anne Consigny), the woman to whom Bauby will dictate his story. As their working relationship progresses, she seems to fall in love with him and it is from her that he gets the title for the book. There is also Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his children, and Ines (Agathe de La Fontaine), the woman for whom he had left Céline. Céline is a big presence in the film, his first and, after Claude, his most frequent visitor. Ines is a much more elusive character, only ever glimpsed briefly, mostly in moments of Bauby’s memories and fantasies. There is a heartbreaking scene where Ines calls Bauby and Céline is the only person around to interpret his blinks for her. Céline disdains Ines not so much for taking Bauby away, but for failing to be there for him now, always making a point to comment that Ines still hasn’t been to see him. Bauby is grateful for Céline’s support, but is clearly still completely infatuated with Ines despite her inability to show up. Ines, for her part, loves Bauby but can’t stand the thought of seeing him as he is now. It’s a difficult scene to watch, especially when Céline must communicate to Ines that Bauby waits for her to come everyday.
There is another scene which also involves Bauby, an interpreter (this time it’s Claude) and a voice on the other end of the phone, which is equally difficult to watch. The voice on the other end is Bauby’s father, Papinou (Max von Sydow). Papinou, too, is a prisoner, unable to leave his apartment because his age has limited his mobility. He’s an old man facing his own mortality and making sure that his son is aware of the location of a letter which explains his final wishes. He breaks down in tears as he speaks, perhaps because he realizes that his son is unlikely to live long enough to carry out those wishes. von Sydow only appears in two scenes (the other is a memory, during which he chastises his son for breaking up his family), but leaves an indelible impression.
A good deal of the film is spent in observing Bauby as he blinks his messages to the world, and as his friends and family learn to receive those messages (in one of the film’s lighter moments, Bauby’s friend Laurent, played by Isaach De Bankolé, attempts to communicate with him but is so focused on the specialized alphabet in front of him that he forgets to watch Bauby’s blinking), but Bauby’s experience is also conveyed through his memories, his fantasies, and images that he simply 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 freely as the imagination. It is amazing that such a tragic story can come to feel so uplifting. When it's over, you won't feel depressed over the failure of Bauby's body as much as you'll be astonished and inspired by the strength of his mind and spirit, both of which are so beautifully captured in this remarkable film.