Francis Bacon said that a sick body is a prison. A healthy soul trapped inside an ailing shell of a body is the most personal kind of tragedy — no one can relate to that feeling unless they have experienced it themselves.
Watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly might help one relate to it a bit more. The film tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor for Elle magazine who is sent into a coma by an unexpected stroke. The film opens with Bauby waking up from the coma and discovering, to his horror, his complete inability to speak or even move. Bauby is fully aware of his surroundings, but his left eye is the only part of his body that will respond. A doctor tells Bauby that he has “locked-in syndrome,” an extremely rare condition that may or may not improve with time.
Director Julian Schnabel’s approach to the first act of the film is brilliant. Nearly every shot is from Bauby’s point of view, while a voiceover of Bauby’s thoughts is heard. This portion of the film is full of occluded lenses and jump cuts, allowing the viewer a strong sense of the disorientation Bauby must feel. This is no gimmick, however. The first-person camera work allows the audience to fully connect with the sense of claustrophobia that has overtaken Bauby. The foundation built in the opening act of the film allows the poignancy of what follows to really shine through, because the audience has truly become a part of Bauby’s situation.
Initially, Bauby is overcome with self-pity. Therapists begin to work with him to develop a method of communication, but Bauby feels no hope for any progress. Flashes of his former life are shown, and it becomes clear that he was a successful, vibrant man. No more, and it is almost more than Bauby can take.
About a third of the way into the film, however, Bauby makes the statement that he will no longer feel sorry for himself. The film is revolutionized from this point on, with the camera work moving from almost exclusively first-person to almost exclusively third-person. It’s one of many brilliant directorial choices made throughout the film.
Bauby, contracted with a publisher to write a novel, decides that he still wants to write the book. Utilizing a painstaking communication system based on the blink of his good eye, Bauby begins to write with a transcriber, one letter at a time. The film is based on the actual book written by the real Bauby during this time.
As Bauby writes, an entire new world opens up to him. Despite being hopelessly confined in the natural world, he finds freedom through his words. Again and again, the cinematography captures the essence of Bauby’s experiences perfectly. This film is brilliantly shot the entire way through.
Strong supporting performances are found throughout the film, but none is more gripping than that of Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father. The veteran character actor only appears in two scenes, but he commands the screen in the most unassuming of ways. The emotional repercussions he feels as a result of his son’s condition are heart-wrenching and von Sydow is pitch perfect.
Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of Bauby’s memoir is undeniably powerful. It couldn’t have been an easy task to capture the thoughts of a man completely confined to his own interior and express it cinematically, but Harwood succeeds.
Julian Schnabel has completely outdone himself with this film. It’s hard to imagine anything that could have been done better. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly approaches perfection in filmmaking like no film in recent memory.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an immensely satisfying film – visually, emotionally, and viscerally. It was hands down my favorite film of 2007, and a few months removed from the end of that year, I feel even more strongly about the brilliance of this film. It’s an absolute must see.
The DVD includes two featurettes: Submerged: The Making of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and A Cinematic Vision. Also included are an audio commentary track with director Julian Schnabel and a segment from the Charlie Rose show with Schnabel.