Sometimes you come across the kind of movie that leaves you completely spent and emotionally drained but glad to have seen it — the film is the kind of movie you'd volunteer to go see over and over again, and you recommend it to all your friends. Schindler's List did that to me back in 1993, and in a different but profound way, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly created a similar emotional response.
Jean-Dominique Bauby lived a life of glamour. As the editor of the French magazine Elle, he was at the epicenter of the fashion world in Paris. But his entire life changed in an instant when at the age of 43 he suffered a massive stroke. By all rights, the stroke should have killed him. Instead, he survived and was diagnosed with a rare condition called "Locked-in Syndrome," where his mind remained fully functional but the brain stem was destroyed, leaving his entire body paralyzed with the exception of one eye. The film's story revolves around Bauby's (Mathieu Amalric) determination to fulfill a book contract with the help of a translator.
The book, a memoir published in translation as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, was published in 1997 and was the basis for the film. A speech therapist ((Marie-Josee Croze) came up with a system of communication: they arranged the alphabet in order of the most frequently used letters and he would chose a letter by blinking. The book took about 200,000 blinks and each word about two minutes. One can only imagine what a painstaking process that had to be for both Bauby and his French transcriber.
As fascinating a story as Bauby's is, it's hard to imagine someone's initial thought process when undertaking this movie. How would you shoot a film that mainly consists of eye movements? I doubt many filmmakers would jump to take that on that task. Director/artist Julian Schnabel was the right man, and perhaps the only person who could pull it off. Schnabel had made two films prior to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Basquiat (1996), about a young man who started out as a New York graffiti artist and became a star, and Before Night Falls (2000), a look at the life of Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas; both these men created art despite tremendous obstacles. Clearly, Schnabel enjoys the task of telling a difficult story.
Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood came up with the perfect solution. Instead of just showing Dauby in bed for the entire film, they show what he and those around him see, his memories and fantasies. The diving bell is Bauby's dream of himself isolated, as if he were living underwater wearing scuba gear or some kind of apparatus that allows him to breathe. The butterfly is a metaphor for his speech therapist who works tirelessly to make the most out of his life.