The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Julian Schnabel is no stranger to telling tales about the real-life struggles of artists, but what he achieves with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is quite remarkable. In previous works he focused on individuals – a painter and a playwright – who managed to create compelling works in the face of personal adversity. He tackles the same themes here, but does so in a way that captures the artistic beauty of life itself.

Unlike most biographical films, Schnabel does not present his subject’s journey as something to aspire to or even pity. Instead he asks us to reflect on the fragility of our own lives by literally placing the viewer in another person’s immobile body. It is only within such confinements do we truly become attune to the majesty of the human mind and spirit.

Based on the autobiographical book by Jean-Dominique Bauby, which he wrote despite only being able to blink his left eye, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a powerful sensory experience. The film picks up the minute Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who was the editor of the fashion magazine Elle, awakes in the hospital after suffering a paralyzing stroke. Through the assistance of a speech therapist, Helen (Marie-Josée Croze), who teaches him how to choose frequently used letters by blinking, Bauby begins to learn how best to cope with his predicament. He eventually uses this skill to dictate his memoirs.

Giving us insight into Bauby’s mind, Schnabel proves that the body is merely a shell that is no match for the brain’s ability to continually create imagery and evoke memories. Though he is unable to move, Bauby is essentially the same man he always was. His eye gazes upon the female form with the same virility of an able bodied man. Utilizing flashbacks to provide glimpses into Bauby’s life prior to the incident, including his complex relationships with his father (Max von Sydow) and the mother of his children (Emmanuelle Seigner), the latter of whom stands by his side in his time of need, Schnabel crafts an image of the man who is not a victim, but rather a strong survivor.

While Mathieu Amalric’s performance is riveting, especially in the moments where he must convey everything through his eye, it is the technical aspects of the film that help to evoke the greatest emotions. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is stunning. His use of colour and lighting brings a subtle, but impactful, aura to the POV shots. Kaminski ensures that we become one with Bauby, both in mind and in the various senses.

Though it feels strange to say that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly warms the heart – after all there is no joy to be had from another man’s anguish – the film did serve as a pleasant reminder that the beauty of life itself transcends the physical. Regardless of the adversities we may face, it is the power of the mind, and being one with our senses, which truly makes life worth living


  1. Nice to see this being part of your Blindspot picks. It is such an amazing film and it made me pick up the book soon after because I really wanted to read the book he had written. Moving performances and like you say it looks great. I have it in my top 100 favourite movies.

  2. Funnily enough, I actually saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in high school. I remember finding it to be weird and somewhat confusing but I probably should try it again at some point especially now that I’m a David Lynch fan and I’m better at watching surrealist subjective films (sometimes anyway, don’t get me started on European art cinema: I do remember it having some beautiful imagery, though, and it was a shame he never got to fully implement his idea of a gender-flipped The Count of Monte Cristo since that sounded like it would have been interesting. In any case it was definitely better than the movie I had for this month’s blindspot.

    1. You should definitely give this film another try. I think you will, now with slightly older eyes, catch many of the nuances that you might have missed upon your first viewing.

      Speaking of giving films another chance, I think you need to give European Cinema another shot in general. I am baffled by how you can detest European surrealist works and be a massive David Lynch fan at the same time. European cinema has clearly had a major influence on Lynch’s style. I guess we all have our vices when it comes to what we enjoy and what we dislike about the cinematic experience.

  3. Definitely one of my all-time favorite films and seeing it in the theater was just an experience that couldn’t be replicated.

  4. I feel like this is actually one of the more underrated films of the century so-far. At first it seems to be reliant on a gimmick, and yet – as you say – it’s about so much more than that.

    Maybe it’s not so much that it’s underrated as it remains underseen?

    1. I think it is combination of both to be honest. Those who have seen the film enjoy it but take the technical difficulty of making such a work for granted.

      There is also the large section of folks, like myself until recently, who have stayed away from the film because they assumed film will be a complete “downer” – it is always hard to make time for a film that you think you “need to be in the right mood for.” They are unaware of the emotional highs and technically mastery that balance out the sadder aspects of the film.

  5. This movie really is quite an experience. Kaminski’s cinematography is brilliant on a whole other level. Glad you got to see this one! Great Blind Spot pick!

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