In the blink of an eye
A stroke victim’s memoir has become a remarkable film, writes Michael Dwyer
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