The 2007 film Le scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is a dreamscape of images and memories told through the perspective of a man, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a stroke victim subsequently paralyzed who chooses not to roll over and die, but to live, and in doing so dictates a memoir through the exclusive use of one eye, an ingeniously arranged French alphabet, and the patience of a good-hearted nurse, Claude. The mosaic direction by Julian Schnabel (only his third film) radiates in bursts of color, gleams of light, and an incongruous relationship between spatiotemporal interaction and the real and the imagined. Imagination, along with the astounding capabilities of one who possesses great will power, lies at the heart of picture.
Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) is the 43-yeard-old editor of Elle, the cosmopolitan French magazine. As the film unravels we get glimpses and hints of troubled familiar relationships, of a rather privileged life, and of intimate relationship also in turmoil. But, before exact details are expounded, the first 15 or so minutes are presented in blurring close-ups, a continually racking focus, and an erratic range of vision, all to establish the condition, more than the character, of Bauby. The images, while sometimes quite graphic (the stitching of one of his eyes), then turns to the wistful and the winsome as the story, using the term loosely, begins to unfold through flashbacks and allusions. To further develop the plot and Bauby as a character, his mental state, we are also frequently presented to great effect with a series of non-diagetic inserts and scenes (glaciers crashing over the tune of a Bach concerto) to allow his thoughts to take shape in a tangible form. For example, could we imagine his “locked-in” physical condition, his containment and pressure, any better than through images of himself, in scuba gear, struggling under water? It’s a vivid representation that evokes so much.
Schnabel’s use of distinctively cinematic techniques (a flickering shutter effect, superimpositions, speed changes, and jump cuts) present a paradox of sorts in terms of narrative progression – they are at times irritatingly and distractingly authentic in their relating of how Bauby must see things, but they are also effective and impressive in their method. Schnable employs an assortment of filmic tricks whose functions are clear and superior, but they also border on being excessive. They serve their purpose, sure, and there are some great moments and images presented through this point of view – the masking of the frame when Bauby is wearing the “rabbit” hat works well – but it’s sometimes too much. We may get a phenomenal sense of Bauby’s visualizations, but I would contest that the truly emotional and most powerful moments are those that occur outside of this formal constraint. In this, I’m looking specifically at the relationship developing between Bauby and Claude and in the scenes where we see Bauby, both before and after the stroke, interacting with his father, with his family, and with his lovers. His Father’s Day at the beach is a stand-out scene, as is the playful homage to Francois Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) near the end.
The film is constructed in a markedly non-linear fashion, thus presenting, at least in the beginning, an obstruction of involvement and relation. I for one found it at times difficult to identify, and therefore to sympathize with, Bauby when so much is initially held back. We know not where he came from or who he really is. His pre-stroke personality is withheld. We are instead presented with a cynical, rude, and wise-cracking individual (albeit it at times a very funny one) who does not do much to elicit our compassion. Of course, given his condition this is rather understandable and this does, admittedly, get rectified as the film progresses. It could certainly also be argued that the moment near the end in which he drives in his new car, picks up his son, and actually is shown suffering the stroke works better at the film’s conclusion.
Performances are strong throughout, and they would have to be to keep the episodic structure flowing; and the cast of foreign film stars (including the greats Max von Sydow and Jean-Pierre Cassel) aide the picture a great deal. Locations too are crucial during the film: a balcony overlooking Bauby’s “Cinecitta,” a towering lighthouse frequently featured in the background, Bauby perched in his wheelchair sitting atop a stand of sorts in the sea. Acknowledgement should also be given to the film’s lack of overly-manipulative melodrama (no John Williams score here), instead keeping things focused and objective. Additionally, Schnabel handles tonal shifts quite well, balancing the serious scenes (as heavy as a diving bell) evenly with the more joyful moments (as light as a butterfly).
The aesthetic qualities of the picture and the general story of this man and what he accomplished are perhaps more impressive than path in which the film is told. Individual scenes are hit and miss, but the good ones are quite good, making up for the missteps. Imaginatively filmed and written, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly presents emotionally a fascinating portrait of a very driven and gifted man, in some astoundingly (and uniquely) cinematic ways.