The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Pathé Renn Productions, 2007
By Doug Nayler
Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) was once the wild, jet-setting Editor of the French edition of Elle. Was, that is, until he suffered a stroke so serious that he became completely paralyzed. Completely with the exception of one eye, which he could blink. But because of his continued blinking proficiency, a method of blink-communication was developed. Once he’d mastered this system, Bauby wrote a book transcribed for him entitled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Within Bauby meditates on his condition, his prospects, and his adaptation to his new condition. Bauby remembers the prospects of his life, family and career, both mourning their loss and considering how (if at all) he can maintain any of those previous connections. Only ten days after the release of the book, Bauby passed away. Not too long afterwards, director Julian Schnabel decided to adapt the book into a feature film. A feature film told mostly from the perspective of Bauby, who seldom is able to leave the medical institution in which he lives.
Yes, that’s right, a two-hour film about a man who can’t move and can’t communicate but through blinks. As seen from the man’s own perspective. I’m not sure about you, but I know my first thought was, “How the hell is that going to work?” Luckily, for those of us who spent the money and invested the time, Schnabel, his crew, and his actors all really knew what they were doing. This movie is fantastic.
More than anything else, two choices in this film’s approach to the story made The Diving Bell work. The first of these was the use of the camera to literally explore Bauby’s perspective during his recovery, as a man having to learn an entirely new way to see and exist in a world he was previously comfortable with. And so, from a first-person perspective, we see Bauby’s world. His head lolls about uncontrollably; his vision comes in and out of focus. And the entire time, we hear Bauby’s internal monologue trying to sort out what is going on. He is trapped, just as the audience is trapped, only able to see what he is pointed at. The result of this is some very unique, experimental cinematography. But unlike the cinematography tricks in say, a Tony Scott film, or an episode of CSI: Miami, the camerawork isn’t just a cool trick. It’s grounded fully in the experiential reality of Bauby, and thus fosters an understanding of his situation by the audience. It is this emotional connection to Bauby that keeps the viewer interested. But is it enough of an emotional connection to just blink with him alone in a room for two hours?
This question, however, doesn’t need answering because of the second choice of approach within the film. And that choice is to allow the film to travel with Bauby as he explores two of the only things he has left: his memory and his imagination. The audience is whisked away with Bauby as he imagines the places he would like to be, and rediscovers the events of his life that he remembers most dearly. It is here that Bauby and the audience both find a welcome escape from the reality of his situation. But, as with all fantasies, Bauby can only think about shaving his father (Max Von Sydow) or the waterfalls of the jungle for so long, before he must deal with his own life in reality again; and it is the conflict between the freedom of the mind and the confines of the body that drives Bauby to write his book. Thus, it becomes the central conflict of the film as well.
For me, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is that which true filmmaking is all about: taking an existing situation and finding a way to express it, so that people in the larger world can understand and relate in a way not possible with any other medium. And that is what I felt most strongly when I came out of this film. That, and a curiosity at how a man who can only blink one eye can constantly attract beautiful women to his aid and comfort.