It has been more than a month since I saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and it's beauty still continues to haunt me. Of course, this film has hardly dropped out of sight since premiering. It continues to play at Landmark's Edina Theater, it is omnipresent on top ten lists for 2007 from here to Paris, and it persists in pulling down awards and nominations, both major and minor. However, if I hadn't been seduced by the trailer, I probably would have passed up the film altogether. I have a pretty big chip on my shoulder when it comes to Julian Schnabel (that becomes more less pronounce as I see his films and ignore his art) and the notion of telling the story of a man who had already told his own story seemed, well, redundant. Of course what Schnabel does so well in this film was to add an autobiographical image to Jean-Dominique Bauby's own words.
It's easy to see why Schnabel would choose the story of French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby. It's a testament to the creative spirit overcoming all adversary, and, let's face it, Schnabel probably sees a little of himself in "Jean-Do": a mover and shaker and all around likable guy who surrounds himself with beautiful women. When Bauby suffered a massive stroke he was left with a very rare condition called "locked-in syndrome," in which you lose almost all voluntary muscle use but remain cognitive and aware. The condition has been likened to the nightmarish notion of being buried alive. With only the use of his left eye, Bauby narrated his experience into a memoir, also titled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dictating letter for letter by blinking. The diving bell is his body that he is locked in, and the butterfly is his resilient imagination. Although I have not read the book, I can only assume that Schnabel was faithful to the book he named his film after.
Schnabel tackles the horrifying reality of Bauby's situation by opening the film from Bauby's perspective of waking up in the hospital. The claustrophobic first ten to fifteen minutes is nothing short of terrifying. The doctors rush in to the announcement that Bauby is opening his eyes, and they stand there, blurry, often out of his range of vision, explaining his condition. As Bauby responds to the doctors, he realize his voice is contained within his head, much like the rest of his ability to express himself. Painfully effective, by putting us in Bauby's place we build up a great amount of sympathy for him and his situation. We visit flashbacks of Bauby, but are held in his present time "locked-in" optical point-of-view, and by the time we finally see him in his paralyzed state we are self-conscious of his shocking physical appearance, much like his friends and family, with one eye bulging and his face slackened.
Schnabel looks to clean up with awards for this film, and perhaps deservedly so. With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and scriptwriter Ronald Harwood also being recognized, the person that seems to get overlooked in this project Mathieu Amalric for his amazing performance as Jean-Do. Amalric is an incredibly prolific French actor that will at once be familiar to savvy American audiences even if it is unclear from where. His last major performance that even got close to these shores was Arnaud Desplechin's interesting Kings and Queen. (Apparently he had a part in Marie Antoinette, but who can remember anything about Marie Antoinette other than Kirsten Dunst.) Amalric's portrayal of Bauby as the able-bodied man-of-the-moment is one thing, but his natural yet horrifying embodiment of Bauby post-stroke is the physical centerpiece of the film.
There is a flashback where Bauby visits his father (played brilliantly by Max von Sydow) in which he insists on giving his aging father a shave. This affection between father and son is a latent memory when his Bauby's father then tries to express himself via speaker phone to his bedridden son. This is just one example of the film's tenderness that takes the unusual route of showing love before pity and dignity before disability. On the other hand, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is just another story about a man of privilege, who no doubt benefited greatly in his dire circumstances due to his status; the women in the film are merely props, one, not so ironically, Schnable's wife; and some poetic licence was probably taken to gloss over character flaws and make Bauby an all-around admirable guy. But in the face of the effectiveness of the film, I am unable to put up a good fight for these inherent weaknesses, and am willing to accept it as the beautiful elegy that it is.