The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Ronald Harwood (Novel: Jean-Dominique Bauby)
Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Jose Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Marina Hands, Max von Sydow
PG-13 (for nudity, sexual content and some language)
When a young magazine editor is struck down in his prime by a stroke leaving him almost entirely paralyzed; it’s his perseverance that leads him to success on the brink of destruction.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a powerful film about the strength of human resilience and the mind’s ability to persevere. Based on the real-life story of Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who was felled by a stroke and waking with near total paralysis, only able to communicate by blinking his left eyelid. Suffering from the rare brain disorder called Locked In syndrome, the patient loses most voluntary muscle control but retains cognitive function.
The film takes the audience on a detailed journey through Bauby’s initial resignation of fate to his rally to produce, one letter at a time, a memoir of his experience. Mathieu Amalric plays Bauby whom we only see in full as the film presses on and after Bauby has accepted his fate and decided not to allow it to affect his life.
Amalric doesn’t have a lot to do, but his ocular expressiveness is one of the more fascinating aspects of his performance. Actors are often accused of going through the motions but avoiding real emotion with their eyes, the window to the soul. Here, the actor is forced to rely entirely on those viewports to articulate his emotive state.
Surrounding him are doctors, nurses, ex-wives and loved ones as they put on brave faces to deal with his condition. The most exceptional of these is Marie-Josée Croze as Henriette Durand, the compassionate speech therapist who devises an ingenious system to help Bauby communicate. She hates to see him that way and becomes frustrated when he doesn’t initially want to use his system, preferring to hide in his own solemnity, but through her persistence and grace, he submits and ultimately succeeds.
Director Julian Schnabel has only directed three films. This is his first in seven years following the successful filming of the life of another novelist, Reinaldo Arenas, called Before Night Falls. In fact, his first film, Basquiat, also puts an artist at center stage as Schnabel examined the life of Jean Michel Basquiat. His fascination with the underappreciated artists and the power of perseverance are a stunning characteristic of his work and largely due to his prominence as a noted artist himself.
Another interesting detail is that so far, he’s filmed subjects in English, Spanish and now French. Few directors cross the linguistic barrier and most go from their native tongue into English and then bounce back and forth. Here we have an American director branching out into other languages with no signs he’ll be coming back any time soon.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a magnificently detailed film. Janusz Kaminski’s masterful lensing adds to the realism of the film. When Bauby first awakes from his coma, we are looking out through his blurry eyes as he tries to focus on those around him. It’s as if we are a part of his mind, experiencing everything that he sees and feels. His internal monologue guides us through some of the emotions we wouldn’t otherwise be able to understand, but the claustrophobic feeling only helps get the audience into his head so that we can vicariously enjoy his triumph and mourn his demise.
It is unlikely any of us would ever have to experience this phenomenon, but it’s not just the paralysis that the film wants us to understand. We are meant to see how the human spirit can drive the soul to accomplish things even at great personal risk. Even when we have nothing to lose we can be spurred on to success by our own will to survive and prevail.
January 31, 2008