by Ken B.
In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French magazine editor, suffered a sudden and crippling stroke that threw him into a coma for nearly three weeks. Upon awakening in a hospital in Breck-sur-Mar, he found that his body was nearly entirely paralyzed. His thoughts were coherent, and he could move his eyes, but he was otherwise immobile. This rare condition, called locked-in syndrome, ensured that the only way he could communicate was through blinking (soon, he was down to one eye, as the other, more affected by the incident, was unusable after the eyelid was sewn shut to keep it from going septic). By using an alphabet listed by frequency of letter, he could blink when another person reading out the letters arrived the one he wanted to use, and through this slow process, he could formulate words. This is how he wrote his memoirs – one blink at a time, until it was done. The result was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, published mere days before his death on March 9, 1997.
The film of the same name adapts this remarkable story. Bauby is played by Mathieu Amalric. Céline (Emmanuelle Seinger), his ex and mother of his three young children, is still very much a part of his life and is one of the first people he sees following his stroke that is not a hospital employee. At first, the film is presented entirely through the point of view of Jean-Do (as he is called). Soon, as his ability to communicate expands, so does our view of his life – we see the events of his past, the people in his life, and through all this, we learn of Jean-Do’s complex personal history. Soon, a few samples of Jean-Do’s imagination are brought upon the screen. Director Julian Schnabel does good work in balancing the execution of all kinds of storytelling, magnified through the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński and screenwriter Ronald Harwood.
Schnabel’s visual element is key. The first few minutes of Jean-Do’s awakening are fuzzy and disorienting, and every subsequent occasion where a POV shot is utilized, it is claustrophobic, entirely fixed to one level. People look directly in your eyes, asking yes-or-no questions. Blink once for yes and twice for no. It’s condescending, and the limitations infinitely frustrating. In these early scenes, before Jean-Do regularly uses the more advantageous method of “speaking”, you as a viewer develop an understanding for the character at hand, and through this captivating method, a lasting interest throughout the movie. In comparison, a certain odd element occupies flashbacks and especially fantasies, the feeling of not being quite there seeps through them.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is wonderful stuff. Amalric’s performance is compelling, both in past and present tense, despite spending the latter in a hospital bed or wheelchair, face drooped to one side, one eye shut, and only able to speak through an inner monologue. Seinger is not to be discredited either, convincing as Céline, determined to support Jean-Do no matter what. However, the top performance is from Max von Sydow, portraying Jean-Do’s 92 year old father, who lives on the fourth floor of an apartment building with no elevator, and unable to navigate the stairs. He knows what it is like to be locked in as well, and in a late scene, where he and his son’s only sans-mediator form of communication is this disadvantage, von Sydow’s performance is deeply emotional and unbelievably effective.
Despite a range of times and places, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a movie that takes place purely within one mind. There are memories, desires, and present experiences gathered in its 112 minutes. It is a truly fascinating film, derived from a fascinating series of events. In Jean-Dominique Bauby, the man and the character, there is the appreciation of life and the need to tell a story. He is not shown as perfect, and that necessary biopic element is what makes this film all the more interesting. This, indeed, is an unforgettable movie about an unforgettable story.