The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon) opens to fuzzy images and confusion as the camera — and the audience — tries to focus itself. As the images become clearer, it appears that the camera has embodied a patient in a hospital bed.
PG-13, 112 minutes
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon) opens to fuzzy images and confusion as the camera — and the audience — tries to focus itself. As the images become clearer, it appears that the camera has embodied a patient in a hospital bed. Doctors and loved ones circle about, relieved that he is regaining consciousness. But as they continue to repeat questions that he has answered, it becomes clear to him, and us, that they cannot hear him.
The patient, Jean-Dominique Bauby, had been the well-known editor of French Elle. In 1995, he suffered a massive stroke that put him in a coma. When he regained consciousness 20 days later, unable to move his body or speak, Bauby learned that he had a condition known depressingly as "locked-in syndrome." The cause of this inexplicable affliction in his early 40s was never found, and he died two years later, having had control only over his left eyelid since the stroke.
Despite his difficult predicament, Bauby managed to write an elegiac book about his condition. Written off by his peers and left for dead in a hospital in Berck-sur-Mer by everyone except his family and a few friends, Bauby proved that he was very much alive with his moving, award-winning book.
Shying away from pity and self-help aphorisms, Bauby manages to convey beautiful scenes from his past life and the difficulties of his condition with humor and wit. Encompassing his condition in the metaphor of a diving bell, Bauby guides the reader through the pitfalls of interacting with people who could only guess his thoughts and feelings. His brain in top condition, he was nevertheless cut off from the world around him; the book became his pressure valve.
And yet, reading the book reiterates the oppressiveness of Bauby’s condition. The short chapters of wonderfully rendered images are constant reminders of the unbelievable effort required to blink the contents of an entire book. The patience and concentration necessary to create the work, let alone edit and finalize it, is hard to comprehend.
But Julian Schnabel, director of the film, has liberated Bauby. From the beginning, he plunges the viewer into Bauby’s world. Showing the view from his cleverly working mind, Schnabel lets the audience in on the thoughts and jokes that Bauby’s loved ones and caretakers struggle to interpret.
Schnabel, with his painter’s perspective, enlivens scenes of Bauby’s life. His previous fortunate, scenic existence does not forecast the prison that Bauby comes to live, and his imaginations become beautiful but tortured escapes.
Conjuring the oppressive image of a diving bell in the memoir, Bauby futilely tries to communicate. His speech therapist creates a device that allows him to do so: Responding to a frequency-oriented alphabet by blinking his left eye, Bauby learns to interact with his loved ones, but the frustrations and setbacks are immense. A doctor sews his right eye shut to avoid infection. Visitors and nurses struggle and fail to contain their dread of his appearance. Thoughtless caretakers subject him to hours of painful television; a fly on his nose becomes a tremendous physical struggle. Despite his active mind and libido, he is a shut in.
Pained by his present physical entrapment, Bauby escapes into his past experiences and his winding imagination. He had lived a charmed life in Paris, surrounded by models, girlfriends, and adventures as an editor, and had plenty to dream about. Schnabel recreates these sequences in exquisite, watercolor detail.
Watching Bauby struggle to match his physical immobility with his active thoughts is a difficult but moving situation. Blessed in his previous life, he awakes to find a disparity between those he valued in Paris and those who value him in Berck. Unable to muster the optimism his caretakers expect from him in this dire condition, he continues to yearn for his past life and those who do not arrive.
The cavern between what he is capable of and what he wants may be immense, but his achievement in this situation is undeniable. Schnabel has created a film as beautiful a tribute to that achievement as can be imagined.
Rather than depression, it invokes awe and appreciation. Bauby may have passed away a few days after the publication of his book, but he proves that despite being nearly locked away by physical limits, he cultivated an optimism in artistry that may not have existed otherwise.
Meghan Keane is a film critic for the New York Sun.