Director: Julian Schnabel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of French Elle, became something of an instant legend when from inside the stroke-paralyzed, speech-robbed shell of his body, he produced a book of haunting, poetic beauty called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Originally intending to reimagine Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo with a woman as the main protagonist before the stroke, he fulfilled his book contract by describing instead the dreams, sensations, thoughts, fantasies, and emotions brought out by his condition. Filming a largely interior monologue presents huge challenges, but if anyone was likely to succeed, it was Julian Schnabel. As a artist of largely nonrepresentation images, his vision of how to film Bauby’s fantasies as well as his subjective reality stood a chance of matching up to his subject’s poetry. Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer whose sharp, color-saturated work wouldn’t seem to be a perfect choice for this film, shot it, and there are some wrong choices that I have to think are his. Yet, overall, the film’s visual sensibility is both as binding and freeing of our imaginations as Bauby’s mind was to him.
The film opens in a blur of snatched images that float and move back into the mists. We are experiencing with Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) the first disorienting moments after he emerges from a three-week coma. He finds himself in a hospital in Berck sur Mer, a place he used to visit as a boy. Now he has a medical team telling him he’ll be fine, that is, until his neurosurgeon, Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais), asks “Jean-Do” to consider him a friend (to Jean-Do’s protest that he’d rather Lepage be his doctor) who has come in to tell him “the truth.” Jean-Do is completely paralyzed with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome. More shocking to Bauby is that all his utterances in response to his caregivers have been in his head, as Dr. Lepage casually announces he will have a speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), who will try to bring his verbal and swallowing skills back so that he can speak and eat again. Henriette and physical therapist Marie (Olatz Lóprz Garmendia) come into the room and introduce themselves as Jean-Do haphazardly eyes their breasts, which are at his eye level.
Jean-Do’s life in the hospital begins with a tech who sews his right eye closed to prevent damage to the cornea. Jean-Do pleads against this procedure, but we watch with him in a how-did-they-do-that shot as the curved needle moves through his flesh, pulling sturdy thread behind it. After this trauma, Schnabel focuses mainly on the parts of Jean-Do’s days spent learning to communicate using his good eye to blink out words, one letter at a time, as Henriette recites the alphabet, and receiving guests.
His first guest is a man named Roussin (Niels Arestrup) to whom he gave his seat on a plane that ended up getting hijacked. Roussin spent four years as a hostage; feeling a kinship with Jean-Do’s condition, he advises him to hold onto what is most human in him to endure the ordeal. His second guest is Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his three children, who stays by his side even as Inès (Agatha de La Fontaine), the woman Jean-Do left her for, refuses to come to the hospital, preferring to remember Jean-Do as he was.
Jean-Do prefers to remember himself as he was, too, overseeing a photo shoot for Elle, driving with his son in his new car, visiting Lourdes with his girlfriend Joséphine (Marina Hands), whose obsession with a lighted Madonna prevented their love-making that night and precipitated their break-up. Catching sight of himself, with his drooping, drooling mouth and patched eye fills him with horror. Considering his helplessness reminds him of going to care for his invalid father (Max von Sydow), in a close and emotional scene of the younger man shaving the fussy older one. Eventually, Jean-Do decides that he must live somehow, and that is when he calls his publisher and says he wants to fulfill their book contract. Claude (Anne Consigny) is hired to learn the alphabet communication and take down the prose Jean-Do “dictates,” resulting in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Bauby likened his condition to that of a deep-sea diver, while nonetheless hearing butterflies fluttering in his head: “To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wingbeats are barely audible.” His contrasting of the heaviness of the diver with the delicacy of the butterfly is a metaphor Bauby used to convey the silent life that continued inside the leaden uselessness of his body. Schnabel presents these images in a straightforward way, showing a diver floating underwater and a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.
His fanciful shots that suspend Jean-Do between reality and imagining are really quite wonder, for example, recounting the history of the hospital as a place where Nijinsky was said to have leapt 12 feet in the air, and showing this feat among the nurses and orderlies. Another fantasy in which he and Claude, who is smitten with him, indulge in a food orgy compares favorably with the food-seduction scene in Tom Jones, even if it does include oysters as the obligatory aphrodisiac.
Schnabel digging into the oppressiveness of the Madonna figure on Bauby is especially effective. Showing how the electric Madonna destroyed Bauby’s relationship with Joséphine highlights what went wrong between him and Céline, whose motherly, fretful demeanor must have killed Bauby’s passion for her. Seigner is wonderful in conveying the hurt and confusion of a woman abandoned for being what women with children are supposed to be. When she has to translate Jean-Do to Inès on the phone, her pain at his longing for her is nearly unbearable.
Some of the imagery came from Schnabel’s imagination and didn’t work for me. For example, Schnabel has been quoted as saying that the collapsing front of a glacier that begins Jean-Do’s inner exploration was necessary, or there would have been no film. The image is too heavy and heavy-handed for me, and showing it in reverse in the closing credits was just weird. I also think Kaminski might have contributed some unfortunate choices, for example, showing Jean-Do’s sewn-up eye. The closing from the inside told us all we needed to know about this loss; actually showing the result on the face seems voyeuristic. In fact, in general, I preferred to inhabit Bauby’s dreams and imagination and follow his amusing and rueful musings about everything from wanting a father’s approval to wanting to feel the bodies of his children in his arms again—each thought a precious meditation on the infinite importance of the intimate moments that make us human.
The final problem I had with the film was mine alone. Amalric looks exceedingly like Robert Morse, a musical comedy star whose persona is quite at odds with Bauby’s. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t dislodge my impressions of Morse from Amalric; perhaps a failing on my part, perhaps the result of a weak performance. However, that I cared about Bauby as those who cried for him in the movie did points to me as the problem. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an intriguing and touching tribute to one man’s perseverence and discovery of what mattered to him in his too-short life.