Julian Schnabel’s film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, opens with a 15-minute sequence of blurred, unstable camerawork and an unidentified voiceover, all suggesting a rather intriguing film experiment. We are in a hospital bed in a small French sea town, looking through the eyes of a patient who has just awoken from a coma. Things become more unsettling when a doctor decides to stitch up the patient’s right eye despite his desperate protests.
The patient is the energetic editor-in-chief of the French edition of Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who had a stroke in December 1995 and was diagnosed with locked-in syndrome. With his entire body paralyzed but his mind in perfect condition, Bauby’s only way of communicating is to blink his left eye. Nevertheless, he regards his misfortune as another life experience and decides to write his memoir. The film derives its structure from the book, consisting of a non-chronological mixture of Bauby’s memories, observations, and fantasies. Interpreting it as a cinematic story might have seemed an impossible task, but Schnabel’s conspicuous success has seen him claim the Best Director prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a nomination for this year’s Oscars.
One recurring metaphorical sequence shows Bauby floating in the sea trapped in his diving suit—he considers his body a diving bell, and feels “reduced to a jellyfish existence.” But his mind flits like a butterfly, imagining scenes from his own reworking of The Count of Monte Cristo (complete with female protagonist), daydreaming about feasting with his literary assistant, flirting with his speech therapist, and reminiscing about his lover, Inès.
In one of the most poignant moments in the film, Inès telephones Bauby while Céline, the mother of his three children, is at his bedside. In a startlingly unsentimental manner, Bauby proceeds to declare his love to her through Céline, who reads out his blinked message to the other woman while sobbing quietly. Even more touching is Bauby’s conversation with his father (Max von Sydow), who hangs up after a few minutes, finding the conversation impossible. Schnabel neither praises nor condemns Bauby in such sequences, and, though they can be painful to watch, the film’s sadness and sentimentality are well counterbalanced by regular flashes of Bauby’s sarcastic sense of humor.
The film is also a remarkable sensory adventure for the viewer. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Munich) makes masterful use of the camera to depict Bauby’s mental and physical state in a highly accurate manner. As in Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom, the viewer experiences the world exactly as the protagonist does. Repetitive sequences of speech therapists reciting the alphabet to Bauby, for example, really bring home the frustration, if not boredom, that Bauby feels at being locked into a useless body that will soon die.
Following on from Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000), this film is a great achievement for the painter-turned-director. With a great soundtrack featuring Tom Waits, U2, and Lou Reed, and fantastic performances, particularly from Mathieu Amalric and Max von Sydow, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not only a compelling odyssey into a man’s mind, but also a wonderful comment on the nature of literary adaptation and filmmaking.