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