The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 52 min.

Release Date: November 30th, 2007 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Julian Schnabel Actors: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny, Niels Arestrup, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Marina Hands, Max von Sydow




bout as stunning and moving as a film can get, Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a poignant story based on the memoirs of Elle France editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from locked-in syndrome, a form of paralysis that kept him a prisoner inside an almost completely immobile body. Noting that the film is based on real events makes it just that much more powerful, but even that wasn’t enough for the creative forces behind this picture. It’s also told from an incredibly singular first-person perspective, additionally marking this project as a definite accomplishment in editing and cinematography.

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) has a successful career as the editor of Elle Magazine, a beautiful family (although he is not married to the mother of his children), and an elderly father who is immensely proud. But at the age of 43, a stroke suddenly, catastrophically, paralyzes him, leaving him with control over his left eye alone. Unable to speak, but still capable of hearing, his fully functioning mind is trapped in a lifeless body, which has become an excruciating keep. With the help of speech therapists and doctors, he manages to communicate by blinking: one blink for yes, two for no. Soon, an alphabet system is devised, which allows him to choose letters by blinking, while a doctor calls out each one slowly. Finally able to express his thoughts, he eventually, painstakingly, writes a book with the help of his dictation nurse.

The first-person perspective that narrates much of the film is ingenious, accurately demonstrating the horrifyingly moribund scenario. Early on, Dr. Cocheton (Gerard Watkins) sews up Bobby’s right eye in a frightful shot that shows stitches penetrating an eyelid as if the camera were the eyeball. Later, all of the nurses, family members, and activities “Jean-Do” sees are from the same perspective, which puts the viewer inside the mind – and the constrictive prison – of the suffering man. Time allows him to accept his situation, and he miraculously makes the best of it. “I survived by clinging to what makes me human,” explains a friend, who had previously taken Bauby’s seat on a plane that was subsequently hijacked, resulting in a hostage situation that lasted for four years. Guilt plagues Bauby from that particular incident, but it certainly couldn’t prepare him for the truly terrifying situation in which he finds himself.

Bauby’s mind and memory are not affected by his affliction, and so, in many tearjerker moments, he uses his imagination to transport himself to assorted places and with various people to do things he can no longer physically accomplish. Tired of TV dinners, he envisions himself feasting at the Le Duc restaurant, eating a majestic meal with the beautiful nurse; he also imagines his curse to have been a dream, from which he rises out of his wheelchair to dance down the halls of the hospital, as it might have been if it were a luxurious Victorian mansion years ago. Strapped to an upright gurney like Hannibal Lecter, Bauby learns to make do with what he has, realizing that his grasp on mental images is the only feasible cure for his rigidly imprisoned mind.

Jean-Do’s father Papinou (Max von Sydow) has great difficulty accepting his son’s situation, considering he is himself a feeble, 92 year-old man; he feels just as confined in his apartment, unable to adequately communicate with his son. Jean-Do’s mistress Ines (Agathe de La Fontaine) can’t bear to see him, and he barely wants to see his own children, afraid of what they might think. The tragic interactions are almost unbearably hard-hitting, though they’re intermixed with gorgeous sights as Bauby regularly metamorphoses dark thoughts into lighter fantasies. Slow-motion, blurred images, and other visual effects keep all of the imagery almost surreal, while a mesmerizing score by Paul Cantelon accompanies every breathtaking moment. Director Schnabel struck gold when he decided to helm “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”; his direction is superb, the adaptation (by Ronald Harwood) is innovative, and the emotionally-charged premise is so affecting and awe-inspiring that little else is necessary to connect with – and wow – audiences everywhere.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10