The true account of Jean Dominique Bauby’s struggle to cope in the aftermath of a stroke is told with just the right doses of sentimentality and humour, not to mention honesty and integrity…
Director: Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Almaric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Joseé Croze, Max von Sydow
What’s it about? Jean-Dominique Bauby awakes to find himself in a hospital bed and unable to move, with only his left eye as a means of communication. Gradually, Jean-Dominique adapts to his situation and via his thoughts, memories and vivid imagination we begin to learn more about this man and the life he led…
The first shot of ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ is introduced to us through Jean-Dominique Bauby’s fluttering eyelids as he awakes from a coma in his hospital bed. From that moment on, we do not leave his side and while that may impose restrictions on the eye of the camera, there are no limits on our enjoyment of what is a wonderful cinematic experience. In fact, there are many advantages to this story being told in the first person and not the third. Were we to learn about Bauby’s suffering through the eyes of another, this film may have been sentimental but ultimately depressing. As it is, however, we are told a poignant tale that is sprinkled with enough humour to save us from total despair.
Naturally, Bauby’s first reactions are that of shock and horror. Swift flashbacks show us that, as the editor of Elle, he was a high flying business man, obviously still quite young and apparently in good health. Suddenly he is a paralytic, resigned to a wheelchair and trapped with one expression that renders him almost unrecognisable. His state is described, in medical terms, as ‘locked-in syndrome’ but the image of a diver floating in murky waters which Bauby returns to again and again depicts his situation even more accurately than the medical term itself. From this image, Bauby pulls the word ‘diving-bell’ which ultimately represents his negative emotions, with the butterfly standing for the positive.
Although Bauby relates his thoughts to us via a voiceover, no doubt quoting the actual novel, the images are of much importance in our understanding of his predicament. It also brings us to the realisation that his paralytic state did not affect the rich and impressive imagination within this man. The director, Julian Schnabel, being first and foremost an artist, seems to have only entered the foray of cinema in the past ten years or so. So it’s no surprise that ‘The Diving Bell’ is full of these wonderful images and dream sequences. With all this imagery, one might think that ‘The Diving Bell’ is some type of avant-garde experimental piece of film-making, but Schnabel’s film is clearly structured and easy to follow. The dream sequences are not long but long enough to leave an impression. Some of the images are simple: a butterfly flitting among the grass, an iceberg crashing into the sea. Nothing you wouldn’t see on Discovery at one stage or another. But is brings us back to Bauby’s point. As clichéd as it sounds, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. And Bauby, in his state of paralysis, realises that the simple things in life are the most important, whether that is an admiration for nature or the appreciation of having family close by.
But before we get out our tissues, be assured that ‘The Diving Bell’ is not an oversentimental piece as I pointed out earlier. Bauby is honest in his account and does not sugar-coat his life to any extent. We discover that there were two women in his life and that he did not always take time to appreciate those around him. Nevertheless, it is difficult to dislike him particularly when he can find humour at moments when others are being so pc about his condition and embarrassed by the situation as a whole. Again, we are thankful that Bauby is telling his story and not an onlooker. At those times when we do see Bauby from an objective viewpoint, it always feels a little strange. Bauby’s active imagination draws us in so much that it is difficult to associate that patient in the bed with the storyteller to whom we are listening. In that sense, I guess, he achieves his aim. The work which he put together using his left eye and an alphabet board teaches us more than any documentary or third person account could. There’s a diving bell and there’s a butterfly and you have to choose one or the other. In his positive approach to his situation, I guess Jean-Dominique Bauby went with the butterfly.