Not since Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, have I been so utterly assaulted by a film. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a brilliant, uncomfortable, and unrelenting portrayal of the hellish fate of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of Elle magazine. Bauby’s glamourous life screeches to a halt after he suffers a catastrophic stroke, leaving him completely and permanently paralyzed, with the exception of one blinking eye. Based on the memoir Bauby miraculously finished just days before his death, Julian Schnabel’s astounding film is at once compelling and repulsive.
The film in begins in 1996 as Bauby awakens in a French naval hospital and discovers what happened while driving his son. With the very first frame, Schnabel forces us inside Bauby’s nightmare, using the camera as Bauby uses his eye. It blinks, it blurs, it searches, but it shows us only what Bauby can see, looking out from his own lens. In fact, it is nearly thirty minutes before we can observe Bauby, rather than be him. Schnabel mercifully releases us from Bauby’s own point of view, but the horrifying effects remain.
Janusz Kaminski’s impressionistic yet unsparing cinematography never softens the blow. If Kaminski’s camera shows only what Bauby can see, Ronald Harwood’s adaptation plunges us deeper into Bauby’s mind, using narration to say what Bauby can only think. Mathieu Amalric’s fearless performance as the complex, careless Bauby is brutally honest and devoid of vanity.
Quite apart from his hideous physical transformation, Bauby was not an easy man to like. He had no regard for his former lover who was also the mother of his three children. Nor was Bauby either grateful or sensitive to the women who dedicated themselves to what was left of his tortured life.
Emmanuelle Seigner gives a tender performance as Bauby’s forsaken ex-lover, Celine, who is also the mother of his three children. Having already endured Bauby’s philandering, Celine suffers further humiliation while sitting faithfully at his bedside. Disregarding her own pain, Celine translates an intimate phone conversation between Bauby and his selfish lover, the elusive Ines. Although Ines finally calls, she never brings herself to visit, leaving Bauby to mourn more for her than she for him.
Taught to blink in response to spoken letters, Bauby is able to spell words. With the patience of his devoted assistant, Claude, beautifully played by Anne Consigny, Bauby begins the long and painstaking process of writing the memoir on which the film is based. Sadly, Claude becomes another one of Bauby’s castoffs — another woman who loved him. One more woman he used.
The women who care for Bauby are blonde and beautiful. It’s no accident they look alike. Schnabel cast them as Bauby saw them. They are all the same. Only the absent Ines, for whom Bauby continues to yearn, is distinctively brunette.
Men are equally disposable to Bauby. Booked on a business trip to Beirut, Bauby is spared when he relinquishes his seat to a colleague who urgently needed it. The plane is hijacked and the passengers held hostage for months. Having finally escaped his own captivity, the guilt-ridden colleague visits the jailed Bauby in the hospital. Bauby feels mild regret that he never called the poor man after his ordeal. But that is the extent of Bauby’s reaction and the quality of his friendship.
The venerable Max von Sydow is very touching as Bauby’s sympatico father, whose age and frailty have curtailed his own wandering. In a scene that demonstrates mutual affection, Bauby visits his father to give him a shave. But, just like the cowardly Ines, his father stays away after Bauby is stricken, never to see him again.
Given the deficits in Bauby’s character, it isn’t quite pity that we are able to feel, but a kind of empathic grief for a human being who still wants life in spite of his suffering. In contrast to the excessive pleasures of the life he once led, Bauby’s cruel fate seems even crueler.
Though Bauby is trapped in his body, his mind can still escape. Bauby’s imagination engenders joy. The contrast between his mental freedom and physical imprisonment give the title its meaning.
From start to finish, there is little respite from the agony of watching this film. Still, I could not turn away from the screen. I sat riveted, as locked in my seat as Bauby was locked in his. For more than two hours, I forgot who I was, where I was, or how long I was there. Bauby’s harrowing story and Schnabel’s storytelling genius will stay with me forever. It may take stamina, perhaps even courage, to see this film. But see it you must. As with any trauma, you’ll come out different.