The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Director Julian Schnabel has brought us a film version of the memoir of Jean-Dominique “Jean-Do” Bauby, the famed editor of “Elle” magazine who suffered a horrible stroke, and was diagnosed with Locked-In Syndrome; his mind was left unscathed, but his entire body was completely paralyzed, save one eyelid. Thanks to a saintly patient physical therapy worker named Henriette Durand, Bauby was able to dictate his memoirs by winking at a specialized card of the rearranged alphabet (so that the most commonly used letters appear first) read aloud to him. Letter by excruciating letter, he eloquently described his situation.
The film is told in the first person, and the first third of the film is almost entirely from Jean-Do’s POV. This means a lot of disorienting angles, shaky close-ups, out-of-focus faces, and bouts of blurry blackness. All of this may seem dizzying, but it does communicate to the audience what it might be like to be trapped, to be Locked In, within one’s own body. We also hear Jean-Do’s incessant inner monologue, usually wry and sarcastic, and often funny (when two physical therapists come to visit him for the first time, the frame is filled with their ample cleavage. Bauby begins to wonder if he’s in heaven). So “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is not a high-minded and inaccessible experiment, but a lively and hypnotic and unerringly creative look at what Bauby probably went through. From playing hangman with his shocked children, or experiencing the pain of having his one non-working eyelid sown shut over his working eyeball, or poetically remembering a time he visited a Catholic shrine with an ex.
Marie-Josée Croze played Henriette, the physical therapist, and is very good. Mathiu Amalric plays Bauby, both in his Locked-In form, and in his lively form in flashbacks and fantasies. Of course when you have nothing to do but lay still, you being to think about your regrets, and Bauby seems to have had plenty, mostly including botched relationships with girlfriends (notably Anne Cosigny), and his current ex-wife Céline (Emauelle Seigner). The exchanges are funny, real, and heartbreaking, but ultimately inspiring, thanks to Bauby’s wry spirit. A scene that almost destroyed me, though, was a conversation Bauby had with his aging father (Max Von Sydow). Von Sydow is one of the finest actors alive, and to see him break down in this film is to see a giant felled by his son.