On December 8, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, known as Jean-Do to his intimates, age forty-three, editor-in-chief of the world-famous fashion magazine, Elle, was living the "good life" to the extreme when he became the victim of a devastating cerebro-vascular accident that left him in a state of total paralysis, incapable of any verbal communication, in what is known in the medical community as "locked-in syndrome." His mental faculties totally intact as he laid motionless in his hospital bed, Bauby learned to communicate with the outside world using his left eyelid, the only part of his body over which he still had any control. During the next fourteen months, using a communication code developed by his therapist and his publisher's assistant, who transcribed this code, Bauby was able to compose, letter by letter, a lyrical and heartbreaking memoir of his life struggle, "Le Scaphandrier et le papillon." Bauby died in 1997, two days after its publication.
From Bauby's tragic story, Schnabel has produced an ambitious film which succeeds on all levels. The problem facing Schnabel to bring the book to the screen was how to keep the spectator interested beyond the dramatic situation itself? To this end, he uses several solutions in succession.
The first thirty minutes of the film are entirely shown in subjective camera. Without any mannerisms or filmic embellishment, Schnabel succeeds in making the spectator conscious of the patient's terrible situation and of his feelings facing his state of total helplessness. At this point, the transposition of our mind is such that the profound disquiet goes beyond simple empathy, becoming also physical.
Schnabel builds the suspense by progressively revealing the face of the patient. It takes about thirty minutes into the film before we get to clearly see Bauby's distorted, frozen face. From the very beginning of the film, we are not witnessing the story of a man, but we will be this man. But it would be pretentious to say that we will then understand him, the aim of the film being only to paint his intimate portrait, using this ingenious technique.
Following this long expository scene, the focus of the film now shifts toward Jean-Do's interaction with the people who surround him. These interactions are enough to make the Schnabel's film heartrending and less lyrical or pathetic as it progresses and becomes more of a narrative. This is certainly not a film gimmick to relieve the unbearably oppressive atmosphere crushing the viewers, but a means to keep their interest.
In what follows, we see episodes of Jean-Do's fantasies, a mixture of memories and dreams, some poignant and some comical or sexy, with some fantastic mise-en-scènes. Jean-Do days resemble parades on a catwalk, about which he was most familiar, as he is constantly visited by the beautiful women who now populate his life: his speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), who will teach him the communication code, his physiotherapist, Marie Lopez (Olatz Lopez Garmendia), his estranged partner and the mother of his three children, Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), comes to see him often and help out as much as she can, organizing a picnic on the beach with the whole family on Father's day, or reading to Jean-Do the voluminous mail that he receives daily. And of course, there is Claude (Ann Consigny), who patiently transcribes Jean-Do's "dictations." Bauby, in order to survive his ordeal without losing his mind, had decided to write a memoir, would it be only to prove to his ex-colleagues that he was not a "vegetable" ("What kind? "he asks, "a carrot? a leek?" In a beautiful metaphor, Schnabel literally showing the diving bell which physically imprisons the patient, and the freeing of his imagination in the form of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis and fluttering among fields of flowers may be decorative, but it is certainly appropriate. The desperately claustrophobic atmosphere at the beginning of the film dissipates somewhat with Bauby's realization of the new freedom left to him by hanging onto his humanness.
The ending of this film consists of a dream sequence showing the opening scene of Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), but this time the film is in color, as Jean-Do is driving through Paris in his new car. He is happily going to see his children at his estranged wife's country house. He takes his son, Theophile (Theo Sampaio) for a ride and suffers a stroke. The music in Truffaut's film, linking the beginning and the end of his production, accompanies Antoine Doinel as he escapes the delinquent's school to freedom and happiness only to meet imprisonment, as now Jean-Do has.
The acting of Mathieu Almaric as Jean-Do is outstanding, and he bears a large responsibility for the film's success. Whether in the flashbacks and fantasies, as the ostentatious ladies' man, or when he stares into the camera with his drooling face, frozen and yet so eloquent, and as the voice-over, where Almaric is another aspect of the Jean-Do, mischievous, sardonic, despairing, lyrical, at no time in this film can Almaric's credibility be questioned.
An exceptional cast of supporting actors and actresses all provide intense richness of emotions, acting with restraint, with hints of modesty and shyness, contrasting with Jean-Do's absolute and candid thoughts. In particular, the four women are superb. Schnabel seems to have made them a little indistinguishable, since for Jean-Do, connected to life mostly through women, they must each have represented the eternal, untouchable feminine. Patrick Chesnais is perfect as Dr. Lepage, the stereotypical doctor, mixing cynicism with some compassion, who is there for himself and incidentally for his patients. Schnabel is to be congratulated for his discerning choice of exclusively using French actors.
Ronald Harwood, screenwriter for Roman Polanski's two most recent films, The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist (2005), wrote the screenplay which is the backbone of this film. While maintaining the basic structure of the book, Harwood succeeds rather well in pacing the story between immobility and action. However, the key to his success is in making the camera become the man. This is not a new idea, but neither is it a melodramatic gimmick here, and at precisely the right moment Harwood's perspective changes, and his film follows a little more closely the demands of a traditional biography. Friends and family from Bauby's life are introduced one by one, but never in a predictable way, nor based upon clichés.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List/1993, Saving Private Ryan/1998), Spielberg's chief cinematographer for the last fifteen years, is brilliant. Rarely has the subjective camera been so well handled: camera out of focus to express the blurring caused by tears; the fades out to black corresponding to the blinking of the eyelid; the occasional leaning of the camera and the brusqueness of some trackings harmoniously fade the shots into the subjective camera. The sets are all spectacular. The image is at times out-of-focus, sometimes brilliant and colorful, sometimes blinding and off-center: this is truly the work of Schnabel, the painter.
Schnabel, perhaps by accident, provides a free endorsement for the French governmental health system. The whole film takes place on the backdrop of the public Maritime Hospital at Berk-sur-Mer, in northern France. However, viewing the medical care provided to Bauby and the environment of the establishment, American audiences will be forgiven for thinking that this is a special private hospital where only well to do people, such as Bauby, are treated. Not so, this is simply a public hospital, typical of where any French person gets his or her free care.
As in all Schnabel's other film, the soundtrack plays an important part. In this film, the rather eclectic music mix, from Lolita by Nelson Riddle, to Jean Constantin's theme of Les 400 coups, to U2, Nino Rota, Tom Waits, and Paul Cantelon, who wrote piano music for the film, gives the film a contemporary rock-punk connotation.
Schnabel raises several points. He touches the question of continuity in relationships, when the other person becomes a mere shadow of his or her old self, in particular, when the relationship has been intense and at the same time fragile in time and faithfulness. This is raised in a heartbreaking scene, where Céline becomes the unwilling intermediary between Jean-Do and Inès, Inès telling Jean-Do that she cannot bear to come and see him as he is now.
Schnabel describes the souvenirs and bits of one's life that one must be seeing while standing before the gates of death, but in this particular case taking just a little longer. However, Jean-Do has already died, and has come back to life as an eye.
The film is also about what it means to be an artist. Sickness is a bit like genius, a source of misunderstanding and exclusion, and the artist, like the patient, is in constant battle against the outside world. To escape one's fate, society's cruelty and restraints, one can only rely on one's own intelligence, creativity, and heroism. By reaching deep within himself, Bauby extends his life beyond the limitations of his body by dreaming and creating a work of art. It's a face-off against himself, where the Superego, the butterfly, gains the upper hand over the Ego, the diving bell. Schnabel is a spiritual man, but not a religious one. He believes in the goodness of people, and in their capacity for being patient with their fellow humans and treating them well, just for the sake of it, the way the women in the film give freely of themselves, trying to help Jean-Do.
Finally, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a simple but powerful lesson about life, not in the moralistic sense, but in the energy it carries. As Bauby says in voice-over at the beginning of the film, the lesson is that we should experience life, living in the present, learning to recognize and appreciate the small moments of happiness as they come along, and most importantly, to love.