Following a stroke, the only part of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s (Mathieu Amalric) body capable of movement is his eyelid that flutters like a butterfly. Yet he manages to dictate his own memoir, published two days before his death. This may sound like fiction, but amazingly it’s not. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” directed by Julian Schnabel, chronicles the inspiring true story of this former French Elle magazine editor with a captivating impressionistic style.
The first scenes of the film present Bauby’s world from his own bed-ridden point of view. We see hazy images of doctors passing back and forth in the sterile white confines of a hospital bedroom as Bauby attempts to make sense of this disorienting and foggy world. Finally, a doctor appears with the verdict: Bauby has lock-in syndrome, meaning that he is completely paralyzed except for his eyes, though his brain remains active. Bauby’s mind is essentially inside a diving bell, screaming to be let out. To make matters worse, one of his eyes is overwrought with infection and must be sewn shut — a procedure we experience as if we were Bauby’s eye catching our last glimpses of the world. But as one eye closes, another one necessarily opens when we finally survey Bauby’s situation from an objective point of view.
Pithy but profound flashbacks woven throughout the film present Bauby’s life as it was before his stroke. Models and fashion have now been replaced by doctors and wheelchairs. Now the main women in Bauby’s life are his two female doctors, Henriette (Josee Croze) and Marie (Olatz Lopez Garmendia), speech therapists who teach Bauby a way to communicate by blinking. Though Bauby begins the film groveling in his own inability to express himself, he learns to adapt and persevere through the struggle as he finds new means of communication. Against all odds, he begins the dictation of his own life story to his speech therapist.
The artistic direction of the film is carried out poetically and nearly flawlessly. Though the film’s somber conclusion might not leave you jumping out of your seat with joy, it sends a hopeful message about the human ability to endure and seek new experiences, even while trapped inside one’s own mind. Bauby openly delivers the story of his flawed life to Marie as a tender relationship builds between the two. The broken relationship between Bauby and his wife Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner) also mends as she continues to care for him, despite his past transgressions.
One especially difficult scene entails a telephone conversation between Bauby and his father. Bauby’s nurse attempts to make conversation possible, but all that ensues are tears on both ends of the telephone. Through such moments, Schnabel authentically conveys the sense of longing and loss that Bauby and those around him feel in the wake of his stroke. Though the film can be alienating at times, Schnabel uses this distancing to great effect as he makes us understand what it means to be disconnected from the world in a physical sense. Emotionally-evocative images fill the screen as we see the beauty and imagination in the world that Bauby still remains aware of.
As an ensemble, the cast delivers heartfelt performances. Even inside the diving bell, Amalric comes across as a charming man with whom we can empathize, and the many women who look uncannily alike each hold a unique position as they revolve around him.
Don’t be deterred by the undeniably grave subject matter of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Though not a romantic comedy, the film ultimately uplifts and portrays the mind’s capacity to always fly freely like a butterfly, even while the body remains trapped in a diving bell.