By Ann Hornaday
The most astonishing, poetic and powerful film of the season, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is essential viewing, not just for the deeply humanist principles that drive it but for the sublime proof it provides of cinema’s abiding artistic relevance.
The facts of the story are these: On Dec. 8, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, 43, the stylish, high-living editor of French Elle, suffered a stroke. He woke up from a coma 20 days later having lost his power of speech and able to move only his left eyelid.
Despite his near-complete paralysis, Bauby still had all his acute, mordantly self-aware mental faculties. Amid physical therapy and the support of family and friends, Bauby decided to dictate his memoirs through a painstaking system of blinking as the alphabet is read to him, letter by letter. The resulting book was published just days before Bauby died of pneumonia at 44.
Bauby is told that he is suffering from a rare condition known as ”locked-in syndrome.” But if Bauby, portrayed in a breathtaking performance by Mathieu Amalric, is locked in, the film is anything but. Directed with sensitivity, vision and unerring conviction by Julian Schnabel, the film takes what could have been an inspiring but inert tale of courage and survival and turns it into an expansive exploration of consciousness. Schnabel, one of the most notorious art stars of the 1980s, has made two accomplished films before this one: Basquiat and Before Night Falls. With this masterpiece, it’s time for him to admit it: He’s a filmmaker. And a great one.
Using a script by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), Schnabel is working at the height of his formidable powers. That is made clear from the film’s opening moments, when Bauby awakens from his three-week coma not knowing where he is or what has happened to him. Throughout the ensuing hours and days, he’s poked and prodded by doctors and therapists, culminating in a process wherein his damaged right eye is ”occluded,” or sewn shut.
It’s a scene worthy of Luis Bunuel at his most merciless, captured from Bauby’s own point of view in a triumph of editing and cinematography that immediately immerses the audience in Bauby’s own experience. And not just the horrors of it: Bauby keeps up an often wickedly sardonic interior monologue throughout. He isn’t afraid to offer an occasional flustered laugh at what’s going on around him.
In many ways, the film isn’t about Bauby as much as it’s about the friends, family and armada of professionals who join forces to help him heal. Bauby’s therapists, Marie and Henriette (Olatz Lopez Garmendia and Marie-Josee Croze), are soon joined by Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), Bauby’s estranged partner and mother of their children, and eventually by Claude (Anne Consigny), the co-author who dutifully takes Bauby’s dictation as he reminisces. Alternating among austere scenes of Bauby’s recovery, lush flashbacks of his life in the Paris fast lane and occasional flights of magical realism, the film explores, with somber reflection and bits of observant humor, how Bauby can take a colleague’s advice and “hold fast to the human inside you.”
Thanks to Bauby’s courage and honesty, and Schnabel’s bravura interpretation of it, what could have been a portrait of impotence and suffering becomes a soaring ode to beauty, memory, imagination and spiritual liberation.