So, it is more than a little surprising that I liked Julian Schnabel’s new film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” based on the life of Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life. In fact, I didn’t just like it, I loved it. It is a great, moving, well-made film.
Jean-Do (Mathieu Almaric) wakes up to find himself in a hospital room in a resort on the coast of France. He quickly learns he is paralyzed from head to toe, cannot speak, and can only blink one eye. As the doctors and their staff visit and do their tests, he learns the prognosis is not good, but they go ahead with more tests and try to help him learn how to adjust to the new life, to rehabilitate him. His estranged wife Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) visits and can barely look at her husband. One of the physical therapists, Claude (Anne Consigny) is brought on to try to help him learn how to communicate again. She has developed a system; she holds up a card listing all of the letters of the alphabet in the order they are most commonly used. She begins to rapidly go through them. When he hears a letter he wants to use, he blinks. As the words begin to form, she suggests a word. If it is the correct word, she blinks. Jean-Do contacts his publisher, with the help of Claude, and arranges for a transcriber to help him write a book about his experiences. Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner, “The Ninth Gate”) arrives and to help him write and cope with his life. Writing the book helps him to remember back to key moments in his life, including interactions with his father, Papinou (Max Von Sydow).
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is really a fairly remarkable film. Schnabel uses all of those elements I mentioned previously, the ones I hate, to evoke what Jean-Do is going through. The film opens with a series of flashes and brief glimpses of objects. We hear Jean-Do narrating and feel his confusion as he tries to figure out where he is. Weak, he can barely keep his eyes open. He quickly realizes a series of doctors are fawning over him, trying to figure out what has happened to him. Schnabel uses a series of quick shots, overexposures, brief images and more to give us a feeling of what is going on in Jean-Do’s head. Naturally, he is confused and disoriented and we get a real feeling for that.
This actually goes on for a while, longer than I would’ve believed possible in order to maintain any sort of narrative. But because we are inside the patients head for so long, we get a real feel for what he is experiencing. As we listen to his narrative, which are essentially his thoughts, and see what he is seeing, in brief glimpses, and learn what he learns, Schnabel and actor Mathieu Almaric paint a remarkably vivid portrait of this man who can only move one eye.
Many actors have portrayed paraplegics in the past, and been richly rewarded for their work with Oscars. Almaric’s performance blows them out of the water. For the first twenty or so minutes, we don’t even see the actor, but we get a feeling for his character, for his frustration, for his desperation. We are listening to his thoughts and this gives us a great picture of what he is feeling. When we do finally see Jean-Do, we already have a feeling of what this character will be like.
In a film like this, there are usually glimpses into the characters life before the sickness hits, generally told through flashbacks. In “Diving Bell”, there are surprisingly few flashbacks to his life before the sickness. These aren’t really needed because the actor gives us glimpses of this previous life through his performance. When we do see a glimpse of this life, it is necessary, to help establish a character we haven’t met yet, or to set up an event later in the film. One such moment happens when Jean-Do remembers a time when he visited his father, Papinou (Von Sydow) in his Paris apartment. Papinou, an elderly man, is confined to second floor apartment because he can’t get up and down the stairs. Jean-Do visits him and gives him a shave. It is a touching moment, filled with emotion because they clearly love each other very much.
The process of writing the book comes to fill the majority of the second act of the film. It is a laborious process, but as jean-Do and Celine get the hang of working with each other, they become more productive. Yet, Jean-Do can’t help but comment about how slow the process is, the pains they go through getting accustomed to one another, and more. As Celine gets to know the former magazine editor better, she begins to sense what he is trying to say after he picks up a few letters. In fact, everyone close to him does the same thing. These moments are very helpful to the viewer because they help to show he can communicate and it would become overly tedious if we had to sit and watch him.
All of these moments point to one thing; a filmmaker who knows how to compose the type of portrait he wants to paint for the audience. He doesn’t want us to observe Jean-Do and look at the paraplegic and moan about how tragic his life is. He wants us to experience the life and the pain of this life through the subject’s eyes. It is a remarkably different type of film portrayal than we usually see and it is extremely effective. Rather than remark about how wonderful Robert DeNiro is or how great Daniel Day-Lewis is (and they both were, in their own rights), Schnabel wants us to see every facet of this man’s life. But more importantly, he wants us to see how he deals with all of the problems of being completely immobile. Think about it. A French man who is barely middle aged, living a life many of us would dream about, suddenly wakes up to find he can only move one eye and can’t communicate with anyone. Confined to a bed and a wheel chair, he must find new ways to converse with his family and friends and the world. So, Claude is a bit of a godsend, when she arrives and announces she has come up with her new communication system.
But the remarkable thing about “Diving Bell” and Almaric’s performance is that this is not the only way he manages to communicate. Amazingly, given the actor is portraying someone who can move only a single part of their body, Almaric makes his character very emotional. With a puffy, permanently pouting lip, an effect of the stroke, Alamric merely looks forward and manages to convey a lot of what Jean-Do is feeling. Because the film so quickly, and effectively, establishes the problems Jean-Do has, we carry this feeling throughout the film, as we watch him convey his emotions with merely a blink of the eye. But as the story progresses, he gets more emotional when he realizes his situation will have more lasting effects and tears swell in his eye.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a remarkably powerful and moving portrait of a man who suffers a fate more horrible than most of us can imagine.