In the blink of an eye

A stroke vic­tim’s mem­oir has be­come a re­mark­able film, writes Michael Dwyer

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

THE DIV­ING BELL AND THE BUT­TER­FLY/LE SCAPHAN­DRE ET LE PA­PIL­LON

Di­rected by Ju­lian Schn­abel. Star­ring Mathieu Amal­ric, MarieJosée Croze, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Con­signy, Pa­trick Ch­es­nais, Jean-Pierre Cas­sel, Ma­rina Hands, Max von Sy­dow 12A cert, IFI, Dublin; Queen’s, Belfast, 112 min WE ARE long ac­cus­tomed to movies in which events are viewed en­tirely from the per­spec­tive of the pro­tag­o­nist, but The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly, the film of JeanDo­minique Bauby’s 1997 book, takes us to an­other di­men­sion. From the very be­gin­ning, it plunges the viewer deep inside Bauby’s con­fused and trou­bled mind af­ter he emerges from a three-week coma.

Af­ter a blind­ing flash of light, the screen fills with blurred im­agery as Bauby (played by Mathieu Amal­ric) re­alises the con­se­quences of the mas­sive stroke that paral­ysed his body in De­cem­ber 1995, when he was 43 and the ed­i­tor of Elle mag­a­zine in Paris.

“Keep your eyes open,” is the first sen­tence Bauby hears when he comes out of the coma. Then he learns that the stroke has caused the ex­tremely rare con­di­tion of “locked-in syn­drome”, which com­pro­mises the stem be­tween the brain and the rest of the body.

See­ing ev­ery­thing from Bauby’s point of view, we share his shock and anx­i­ety at re­al­is­ing that his body is paral­ysed from head to toe and that he can­not be heard, even though his brain is in per­fect work­ing or­der. That ex­tended se­quence is so con­vinc­ingly recre­ated that it ini­tially takes on a suf­fo­cat­ing in­ten­sity be­yond claus­tro­pho­bia.

The only re­lief comes with the dis­cov­ery that Bauby has one re­main­ing form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: blink­ing his left eye­lid. With the en­cour­age­ment of a ded­i­cated speech ther­a­pist (Marie-Josée Croze) and her use of a re-or­dered al­pha­bet that pri­or­i­ties the most com­monly used let­ters, Bauby painstak­ingly ex­presses him­self by blink­ing when the cor­rect let­ter is pro­nounced aloud.

Bauby’s in­stinc­tive re­sponse is terse: “I want death”. Within the se­vere lim­i­ta­tions of his altered ex­is­tence, how­ever, he finds a rea­son to go on liv­ing, and a way of deal­ing with the guilt and re­grets that shroud his thoughts, through dic­tat­ing, blink by blink, the book that, more than a year later be­comes The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly.

Flash­backs il­lus­trate Bauby’s life be­fore the stroke, as an ex­u­ber­ant, ac­tive man who, a year ear­lier, left his part­ner Ce­line (Emmanuelle Seigner) and their young chil­dren for an­other wo­man, Claude (Anne Con­signy). Later, at his hospi­tal bed, there are echoes of Cyrano de Berg­erac as Ce­line reads mes­sages from him down the phone to his lover.

Af­ter we share his mem­o­ries of play­ful times with his chil­dren, Bauby, who is get­ting more and more pos­i­tive, tells them, “A small frag­ment of a dad is still a dad.” And the film is touch­ing as it il­lus­trates his close re­la­tion­ship with his own el­derly fa­ther (Max von Sy­dow).

One of the re­mark­able achieve­ments of Ju­lian Schn­abel’s thought-pro­vok­ing film is that proves life-af­firm­ing yet never turns sen­ti­men­tal, and finds hu­mour in the most un­likely places.

This is the third film di­rected by Schn­abel, an es­tab­lished painter be­fore he turned to cin­ema, and all three have dealt with artists who died young: Basquiat, Be­fore Night Falls and now The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly, his most am­bi­tious and ac­com­plished to date.

The film rep­re­sents a po­tent fu­sion of artis­tic tal­ent in Schn­abel’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ron­ald Har­wood, who has writ­ten the most cin­e­matic of his many lit­er­ary adap­ta­tions; Janusz Kamin­ski, whose cin­e­matog­ra­phy is in­ge­nious and strangely beau­ti­ful; and a gifted ed­i­tor, Juli­ette Welf­ing.

All four have been nom­i­nated for Os­cars, as Al­maric should have been for his in­deli­ble por­trayal of Bauby be­fore and af­ter his stroke, in­vest­ing the film with heart and in­tegrity.

Mem­o­ries of me: JeanDo­minique Bauby (Mathieu Amal­ric) and fam­ily

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