Jean-Dominique Bauby was a successful and popular magazine publisher when, at the age of 42, he suffered a massive stroke, leaving him almost completely paralysed. Almost, since he was still able to control one part of his anatomy – his left eye. Remarkably, with the assistance of a group of therapists and helpers, he was able to ‘dictate’ a memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in this state. The book is a unique piece of non-fiction, singular in its conveyance of what it was like to have so-called ‘locked-in syndrome’.
A remarkable book, but not one which would immediately scream out to be turned into a motion picture. So it is to director Julian Schnabel’s immense credit that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly does justice to its source text. At times compellingly tender, other times somewhat darkly comic, it successfully steers a path away from over-sentimentality to present the story in the best, and perhaps only, way possible.
Much of the film, inevitably, is viewed from the first-person perspective of Bauby, played remarkably by Mathieu Amalric. Not that you would initially know though, as we do not see his face until he glimpses a reflection of himself in a window – we are shocked by what he has been reduced to, as is he, likening his appearance to having been dipped in formaldehyde. The use of the first-person view is uniquely rendered by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski – complete with blinking, delay in the shifting of focusing, and at one stage the blur of tears rinsing the screen. In one horrifying scene, we see a doctor stitching up his right eye, naturally from the inside – as visceral and fleshy as anything David Cronenberg has done.
Bauby ‘dictates’ by having the other party read the alphabet, letters ordered according to frequency of use, until he blinks, indicating the letter he wishes to use, until words and then sentences begin to be formed. At times early on, the subtitling becomes a little confused – when ‘merci’ is being spelled out, the subtitles read T H A N K S. But this is only to be expected, and becomes less of a problem as the film goes on. American director Schnabel has been at pains to point out that the film exists only in French, learning the language especially in order to make it in its original form. And there is something more poetic, almost more romantic, about the alphabet recited in French as opposed to English – especially if it is a beautiful French woman doing the reading, as Bauby (always one with an eye for the ladies) is keen to note.
The film is able to explore the various implications of Bauby’s state; unable to speak to his immobile father on the telephone, play with his children, or merely to speak to men delivering to his room a new speakerphone. This is the eponymous diving bell – a coffin sinking him to the bottom of the sea, all the time his fast, active mind unable to articulate itself from its static metal case. And in one especially painful moment, we see the mother of his children having to act as intermediary translator when his mistress telephones his hospital bed; his refusal to rebuff her advances, despite everything, shows that he is no hero – just a flawed, selfish man like any other.
One pair of scenes stand out more than others. A pre-stroke Bauby goes to visit his immobile father Papinou, played with typical pathos by Max Von Sydow. Bauby is very much his father’s son – quick witted, sarcastic, with an eye for the ladies. But Papinou is now ‘locked in’ himself – he is unable to leave his apartment, so Bauby goes in order to give him a shave, where they trade fairly innocuous verbal blows. The significance of the scene is illustrated later, when Papinou calls Bauby’s hospital room, and the two men are, for differing reasons, unable to fully articulate themselves. But there is a common, unspoken bond there, and it is at this point the film punches home the true tragedy of the situation; Bauby, for all of his sexual philandering and bad life choices is still a son, as well as a father, now deprived of being able to conduct relationships with people in a conventional way.
Julian Schnabel has made a very, very special film here. I immediately thought of one of the all time great films, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, in which a man faced with the death sentence of cancer is first driven into despair, but then comes to find meaning to his life in creating something – a children’s playground. In that film, the central character Watanabe is no saint – emotionally distant, a workaholic with little time for others – but in his perilous state comes to realise that maybe before he wasn’t really living, or engaging with life. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly deals with a similar subject matter, in a similarly subtle, affecting way; Bauby may have found himself trapped in a straightjacket, but it made him realise the fleeting nature of life, the painful loss of experience to memory, but the need to find new joys in life, whatever one’s situation.