The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Jean-Do Bauby suffered a stroke at 42 that left him entirely paralyzed, save for his left eye. "Locked in" syndrome is a very rare and almost unimaginable condition. Yet thanks to Bauby and his medical team we now have a good idea of what it involves, mentally as well as physically.
Paralysis might not seem the most promising basis for a movie, but it proves fascinating on a number of levels, not least of which is the process that enabled Bauby to communicate. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood's inspiration is to open the film from Jean-Do's point of view as he wakes from a three-week coma. Immediately we're empathising with him, as a series of blurry doctors heave into looming close-up, and he and we realize they're not hearing the voice in Jean-Do's head.
Presenting him with a customised alphabet - reordered to represent the most common letters first - speech therapist Henriette Durand instructs him to blink when she reads the letter he wants to spell out. Then she starts again back at the top: E, S, A, R and so forth. At first it seems less like dictation and more like torture. But as they become more practiced and in synch it proves to be a lifeline, proof that the real Jean-Do - the editor of "Elle" magazine and aspiring novelist - is still there, trapped inside the useless, inert shell he's been left with. Eventually, he is able to blink out his life story.
"Un film de Julian Schnabel", this US-French coproduction won the Best Director prize at the Cannes film festival and has four Oscar nominations, for editing, cinematography, screenplay and direction (though not for best picture). A painter and sculptor in his own right (he considers himself an artist first, and a filmmaker second), Schnabel is evidently drawn to the subject of creative suffering - his first two films were also biopics about tortured artistic types, Basquiat and Before Night Falls; "triumph of the human spirit" movies of the kind that invite cynicism from critics and grateful thanks from almost everybody else.
Schnabel's films are conventional in dramatic terms, and his tendency to cram them with movie stars and arty flourishes can be counterproductive, but as you would expect the visuals are often alluring and inventive.
Although it's not free of his faults, Diving Bell brings out the best in him, for the most part. It was Schnabel's tenacity that convinced everyone the film had to be done in French, for instance, a crucial decision that bespeaks some respect for cultural integrity. The strikingly sensual sequences shot from Jean-Do's prone perspective are particularly effective, with their flickering sunspots and wide-angle wooziness (the DP is Janusz Kaminsky), and he intersperses flashbacks and fantasy sequences relatively sparingly (the diving bell was Bauby's image for his condition; the butterfly is a symbol for his imagination and his memory). Just as well, probably, as Jean-Do's back-story seems to be pretty banal. I'm not sure that odd interventions from the Empress Eugenie and Nijinski add a great deal to our understanding either.
What is interesting is that Bauby comes to appreciate the chance that has been given him: not so much to extend his life but to settle his accounts and say his goodbyes. This doesn't necessarily involve repentance (although there is a guilty Catholicism lurking at the edges of the frame), but certainly a more robust self-appraisal than he seems to have been capable of before the stroke. In the end, we come to see his terrible affliction as a kind of blessing - it is still life, after all.
Jean-Do also has to cope with the reactions of those around him, which range from dedicated concern (Marie-Josee Croze as Henriette; Emmanuelle Seigner as the mother of his children, Celine: Anne Consigny as his stenographer, Claude) to clumsy paternalism; embarrassment and thoughtlessness. But it's got to help that all the women around him are gorgeous.
Mathieu Almaric, the personable French actor who cropped up in Munich and Marie Antoinette, doesn't appear onscreen until about a third of the way through. When he does, he affects an appalled, fixed astonishment that seems entirely appropriate. But it's his soft, articulate, ironic voice that really sustains the movie, a voice that makes itself heard even above the silence.
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