Not everyone stricken with a permanently debilitating condition can avoid surrendering to despair. Among those who bravely fought on, consider the ordeal of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of the French edition of Elle, who at 43 was stricken with “locked-in syndrome.” His only movement signaling contact with the outside world was with his left eyelid.
Yet, after unspeakable and unfathomable bouts with suffering and depression, he used that eyelid to communicate a book published months before his death in 1997, two years after the attack. The story of this struggle is realized in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” the title of Bauby’s work adapted by screenwriter Ronald Harwood and directed by Julian Schnabel, who has just been nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film.
The movie features some stellar performances, especially one by Mathieu Almaric, who plays Bauby. But its undeniable virtue is Schnabel’s direction, which takes the shape of an interior monologue. In and out of focus, we observe as Bauby sees and confronts not only his wife, but nurses, doctors and other technicians scrambling by his side, trying to communicate to him, delivering the terrible news. Later, the movie opens up to a more omniscient viewpoint, as we catch glimpses of the patient.
May I pause here to state that eight years ago after open heart surgery, I experienced a brief stroke (TIA). I recall the doctor’s pronouncement, the fussing, the specter of my children standing over me, and the utter frustration of being unable to communicate. Summoning up that experience is still as painful as it is horrific. I cannot imagine dealing with it forever, but I can assure you that as depicted here from a patient’s view, the initial sensation is all too real.
You would think that a movie like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” would be depressing. The saving grace, if you will, is that the movie is not a downer. I suppose you could call it inspirational, but that designation is a bit flip and disrespectful to the vision of Bauby, his book and the film. Of course, you may note that compared with the victim’s plight, most of our problems seem trivial; that recognition can be soothing, perhaps perk us up to reality. But the movie’s overwhelming achievement is its evocation of a life and events without wallowing in any kind of pity or histrionic melodrama.
Part of that effect is the honest acknowledgement that Bauby is a flawed individual, a man who retains those shortcomings after his stroke. It’s hard to feel for him instead of for his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) when he asks her to read letters from and communicate with his mistress.
The most touching and powerful scene is with his father, played impeccably by the great Max von Sydow, who chastises his son for his familial abdication. We also respond to the characters portrayed by Marie-Josée Croze, who plays his speech therapist, and by Anne Consigny, who portrays his editor.
It is heartwarming to note the love and attention by health care givers and fellow professionals. Once more, and on a personal level, even though one can say they receive remuneration for work, I cannot forget nurses and therapists who labor with compassion. It is one of those qualities that wards off cynicism about human nature — qualities quietly depicted in the film.
I must return to Schnabel’s direction, which with the artistry of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, captures the first-person view with unpretentious grace. We feel the struggle without being manipulated into pity; nor do we feel this is one of those spectacle movies inviting us to bow down to bravery.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is simply one man’s story dutifully and artfully rendered with respect for the human spirit with all its flaws. You may well emerge from the experience feeling more refreshed than depressed, more respectful of that a spirit that does not surrender to despair.
‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’
DIRECTED BY Julian Schnabel
SCREENPLAY BY Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby
STARRING Mathieu Almaric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Max von Sydow and Marina Hands
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes