Suddenly, irreversibly, and believably, journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathie Amalric) is silenced by a stroke so massive all that remains of him is his left eye. That eye remains as acute as it ever had been for Bauby, who shows us the pain and frustration of his new life, as well as his indomitable spirit, in Julian Schnabel’s remarkable new film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
The eye that saw Bauby rise to the top of his profession (he was the editor of Elle in Paris when the stroke occurred at age 43) now peers out from an isolation chamber filled with the echoing thoughts of a man with more life to live than ability to live it. ''My hands, lying curled on the yellow sheets, are hurting, although I can't tell if they are burning hot or ice cold,” writes Bauby in his autobiography, which was released in 1997 and shares its name with the film.
Schnabel’s film is one with a unique point of view; how often have we seen a camera mimic the movements a character, nodding or darting from side to side? To find the proper perspective in The Diving Bell, Schnabel moves his camera in much the same manner, but somehow, those simple mechanics manage to feel more authentic, blinking, fading in and out of consciousness and using the natural inclination to follow the action in the room. On one occasion, we even see Bauby’s right eye, the one that suffers the same paralysis as the rest of his disfigured body, sewn shut… from the inside.
But Schnabel realizes that the first person point of view could be a glorified parlor trick if done incorrectly, especially since Bauby did not just observe the world through his left eye, he communicated with it, as well. With the aid of his nurses, the writer developed a complicated and time consuming alphabet system based on listing the most commonly used letters in the alphabet in descending order.
"Basically, there's more than 50 different kind[s] of blinks,” Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) recently told NPR. “And until you start making a movie about a guy blinking, you don't really notice that. You just think the word 'blink' means blink.”
The film’s title describes Bauby’s cell in his own head (the diving bell) and his undeterred creativity (the butterfly), and as deep as the title is, the film is even more so, as perfectly layered a film as you will find in recent years. There are enough flashbacks to before Bauby’s stroke to remind him why his new work is so important and to give the audience a break from the tedium of watching actresses recite the alphabet in French.
It also allows Mathieu Amalric a chance to showcase an impressive range from lover to dutiful son and from jetsetter to father, and seeing all these sides of Bauby add gravity to his narration during those scenes when he is trapped inside himself.
There have already been ample awards considerations for this film. It’s shocking to learn that the good people behind the Oscars, the AMPAS, have such stringent rules in place that this is not eligible to win Best Foreign Language Film because of its percentage of American financing.
It will be eligible for Best Picture, however, and should receive a nomination; it’s the movie that takes the biggest risk and has, arguably, the greatest reward. It’s the most original and most human film of the potential nominees. And if an actor ever deserved a nomination for two scenes of work, then it would be Max Von Sydow, providing a divinely heartbreaking supporting appearance as Bauby’s father.
Beyond golden statues and all the rest, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a daring, intelligent film that makes you think while you can’t help but feel. It’s immediately different from anything you’ve seen and never disappoints, no matter how disappointing the circumstances for Jean-Dominique Bauby become.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner and Max Von Sydow
Directed by Julian Schnabel