Imagine waking to find yourself a prisoner inside your own body, reduced to an immovable, disconnected consciousness? The true story of former Elle magazine editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, struck down by a stroke in the prime of life, aged 42, is a stirring one, vividly brought to life in 2007 by director Julian Schnabel (completing his third straight biopic after 1996’s Basquiat and 2000’s Before Night Falls) and his screenwriter Ronald Harwood.
In a secluded hospital in Berck, France, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wakes from a three week coma almost completely paralysed, his left eye the only part of his body over which he retains control. The brilliantly realised opening 15 minutes of the film are a tribute to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the much lauded Polish D.P. who’s worked for so long with Steven Spielberg amongst other cinematic luminaries. Here we watch Bauby’s world reinstated through his own eyes, capturing every confused and uncomprehending thought as it emerges from beneath the gradually dawning horror of his irrevocably altered perceptions.
Suffering from what his doctor terms ‘Locked-In Syndrome’, he must begin a painstaking re-initiation into the world of communication with the aid of speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze). She develops a simple but effective method of extracting letters, words and, finally, sentences from him, blinking to identity each letter as she rapidly recites the alphabet.
Implored by a friend to “hold fast to the human” inside him, Bauby seeks to fulfill his friend’s wishes by engaging the gifts of his only remaining sources of consciousness: memory and imagination. Through both he uncovers remarkable reserves of courage, inciting the power of the conscious mind to overcome a profound despair threatening to destroy the last vestiges of his identity, longing for the cathartic embrace of death.
Flashbacks to Bauby’s extravagant life before his stroke are a useful diversion, providing smaller pieces of the puzzle which define this man. None are particularly insightful though, for the real story of Bauby begins in the moments after he first regains consciousness; from this point onwards his able-bodied existence must seem like segments of a dream he no longer has the power to negotiate for.
Schnabel’s imagery is often stark and haunting; there’s simple but resounding power in watching as Bauby tries to overcome the divide separating his dark entombment of the soul from the possibility of ever escaping via imaginative forces, like conjuring a butterfly as it struggles to release itself from a hazy cocoon.
Amalric gives a remarkable performance in the lead role, achieving a level of expressiveness that seems inexplicable considering the physical limitations of his character. There’s excellent support from Croze as the therapist who develops an immediate attachment to her patient, and remains unfazed by the limited prospects of progress initially. Emmanuelle Seigner, with those eternally haunted eyes of hers, is also solid as Celine, the mother of Bauby’s children, loyally attending to his needs whilst other once significant members of Bauby’s inner circle, like his father (Max von Sydow), remain invisible.
I doubt it’s possible to understate the power of Schnabel’s film, achieving as it does a grim but graceful poetry whilst, admirably, never spilling over into sentimentality; heartbreaking yes, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is also an inspirational chronicle of survival and the might of the human spirit, told with passion, innovation and daring.