The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
On 8 December 1995 Jean Dominique Bauby – the 43-year-old editor of French Elle magazine suffered a huge stroke. Twenty days later he awoke, unable to move anything apart from his mouth; he could also grunt and blink his left eyelid. He was diagnosed with the extremely rare Locked In syndrome.
Despite this, over the next two years, until his death in 1997, Bauby created a slender book called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking when the correct letter was reached by a speech therapist slowly repeating the alphabet over and over again. The book detailed the thoughts, memories musings and investigations of a self-proclaimed ‘vegetable’ who is trying to recall those final moments before the stroke. Bauby died of heart failure two days after the book was published in France.
Artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s third biopic based on the sad but inspiring stories of renowned men (following on from films about gay Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas and tragic artist Jean Michel Basquiat) is an uneven but moving affair. Propped up by a literal but instinctive screenplay by Ronald 'The Pianist' Harwood and excellent French actor Mathieu Amalric as Bauby the film certainly catches the flair, intelligence, energy and mischievousness of this man who was often less than a saint to those who loved him (despite being married with two children Bauby was a prolific playboy until his stroke).
Schnabel is an unusual, lyrical, untaught and occasionally infuriating filmmaker whose films are marked out by sudden shifts of tone, strange cinematic ellipses, inconsequential detailing and the white heat imagery of dreams: all of which fits perfectly with the triumph of the human spirit theme which runs through Bauby’s core text along with its odd parallels to mud and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Christo.
Schnabel is greatly aided by the remarkable intervention of Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski who divides the present from the past in ever more rich and inspired ways until they come together at the moment of Bauby’s martyrdom. This is an unusual, rich, formless and challenging film about memory, regret, paralysis and sexuality that deserves to find an audience. (Paul Dale)
GFT, Glasgow; Filmhouse, Edinburgh and selected release, from Fri 8 Feb.