Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.24.08


An artist’s take on locked-in syndrome

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY: Directed by Julian Schnabel. Written by Ronald Harwood, based upon the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Cinematography, Janusz Kaminski. Music, Paul Cantelon. Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny and Max von Sydow. Miramax Films, 2007. PG-13. 112 minutes.

He wasn’t the wealthiest man in Paris, but one can scarcely imagine a richer life than that of Jean-Dominique Bauby. He was a journalist and writer, the editor-in-chief of French Elle, a man more accustomed to cashmere than calamity. He was beloved by men as well as women (many women), including his father and the mother of his children. Everyone, including strangers, affectionately referred to him as “Jean-Do.” But while driving with his son in December of 1995, Bauby suffered a “cerebrovascular accident,” a stroke that at age 43 left him fully paralyzed except for one eye. Entombed, he managed to communicate by blinking, producing a memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, upon which the film is based.

Part of the genius of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is how the filmmakers open the film: Not with Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) the playboy, the tireless romantic, but with Bauby surfacing after weeks in a coma. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List) places us within Bauby, revealing his dire situation through his eyes — or eye, seeing as his right eye doesn’t work, which gets it sewn shut almost immediately. You can’t be prepared for this hermit-crab perspective (Bauby’s metaphor), for the amputation-like feel of his right eye closing forever. Nor have you ever seen a person crying from within, from literally behind a veil of tears. It’s astonishing. But Bauby’s “total lapse into infancy” doesn’t include his imagination, the dancing butterfly to the diving bell of corporeal prison. If he is fully alive on the inside, Bauby will eventually make contact. The question is, how much of the earlier Bauby is intact?

As it turns out, every bit. At the urging of his speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), Bauby communicates by blinking while she recites the alphabet. The letters, re-ordered by frequency of use, become words as Bauby eye-blinks his selections. When Bauby makes it clear he wants to tell his story, The Diving Bell undergoes a shift in perspective, freeing us from Bauby’s body just as Bauby is emerging from his prison. What follows are arguably the strongest and most beautiful scenes in the film: The story comes forcefully, vibrantly alive as the book project gets off the ground, while at the same time we witness the pre-accident Bauby at work, at play and in love. Eventually, as Bauby himself says of his book, all that’s left to revisit is the accident.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is painter-director Julian Schnabel’s third film, but I don’t think his performance-heavy Before Night Falls could have prepared us for The Diving Bell. Schnabel will always be remembered as the larger-than-life figure who — by sheer force of personality, if not talent — commanded the freewheeling 1980s art scene in Manhattan. But in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, he manages to create an entirely original style, a complete visual metaphor for what it could feel like to be locked-in, as Bauby’s syndrome officially is known. That allows some fundamental questions to surface: When your life is altered suddenly and catastrophically, who are you, really? Are you the person from before or the person now?

I mentioned genius, but not perfection. The five female leads in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are each portrayed by world-class beauties, a fact I attribute to vanity on Schnabel’s part, as if his vision didn’t permit a more representative sample. The implication, that skin-deep beauty is therapeutic, is out of step with the themes of the film. There are moments when The Diving Bell feels too impressionistic, as if Schnabel can’t resist turning his film into a music video. Still, The Diving Bell is a stunning work of art, one befitting an artist who might yet be referred to as director who paints, not the reverse.    

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly opens Friday at the Bijou.