First thing’s first. What is a “diving bell” exactly? Maybe it’s just me, but until I sat down to write this review, I had absolutely no idea what the words meant. Time to do some research.
Apparently, a diving bell is “an open-bottomed chamber supplied with compressed air, in which a person can be let down under water,” (Thanks for lookin’ out, dictionary.com). More specifically, in the context of the new film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, directed by Julian Schnabel, the apparatus in question is Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), one-time editor of the French magazine Elle, who in 1995 suffered a debilitating stroke that left him almost completely paralyzed.
Afflicted with a rare condition known as “Locked-In Sydrome,” Bauby retained all of his mental faculties, but was entirely unable to move, except to blink his left eyelid. In his memoir, from which the film takes its name, Bauby compares his state to the sensation of being lowered into the water in a diving bell, completely removed from the rest of the world. The film immediately throws the viewer into Jean-Dominique’s world, and the first images we see are from his perspective, as he slowly wakes from the coma that his stroke sent him into. The first-person style of camera work that’s implemented for large portions of the movie can be disorienting at first, but it’s very effective in communicating the experiences and emotions of a completely paralyzed man; the effect is enhanced even more by voice-overs that relay his internal monologue.
The initial shock Bauby experiences as he learns about his condition eventually gives way to despondency: he starts to wish he would just die, rather than live as a prisoner in his own body any longer. However, with the help of a dedicated group of hospital staff and loved ones, he begins to understand that he can still live even though he can’t move. A speech therapist named Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) suggests a system for communication where letters (arranged in order of their frequency of use) are dictated to him, one by one, and he blinks when the right letter is spoken. It’s through this system that Bauby begins to actively communicate with the outside world again, and it’s also through it that he laboriously records his memoir.
“Hmmm,” you may be thinking, “a story about a man who can’t move who blinks in sequence to write a book. How is this supposed to be interesting?” Well, besides the fact that the bare-bones description you’ve just read is pretty incredible in its own right, there actually could have been a problem if the movie had focused solely on the aforementioned dictation. Luckily, Schnabel integrates portions of the memoir into the film as flashbacks that reveal some of the earlier periods in Bauby’s life — as a father, a magazine man, and even a philanderer. He had a soft spot for beautiful women and couldn’t find a place for just one in his life, even after he had children with his longtime girlfriend (Emmanuelle Seigner).
Additionally, Bauby makes a sort of metaphysical journey over the course of the film; he comments early on that, though his body might be broken, his imagination still runs free. To this effect, the main narrative is married to a collage of beautiful images throughout — our hero (with full freedom of motion) skiing or driving a convertible on a sunny day; glaciers collapsing into the ocean; a man in a diving suit floating silently through the dark water. Each of these dream sequences in a way represent how Bauby, a diving bell, transcended limitations that would have left most people broken, and was able to remain the butterfly he had been when healthy.
Aside from making films, director Julian Schnabel is also an artist of the more traditional ilk — his works of expressionist art have been displayed everywhere from New York to Paris. That he has such a background is no surprise given the painterly beauty that he lends to many of the film’s more memorable montages. Along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Schnabel has constructed one of the most gorgeous motion pictures that I can recall seeing in recent memory. Some scenes are bathed in a warm orange glow, while others take on equally pretty hues of red, green or blue. The entire film is suspended in a sort of dreamy, ethereal state; the aesthetics adds to this impression, but the thrust of the film dictates it. Kaminski does a fantastic job of matching the script’s tone with appropriately lush visuals.
Still, the most impressive piece of the picture has got to be Bauby himself. At the core of this movie is a pretty magnificent story — at its best, it’s a beautifully rendered tribute to the human spirit. Although it occasionally gets bogged down in its own devices, and at times cuts away from especially affecting moments a tad bit too early, there isn’t any denying what the film as a whole represents. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a seminal work of art, and one of the more brilliant literary adaptations to grace the silver screen.