The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, based on the memoir by Jean-Dominque Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) is a brilliantly shot (by Oscar winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) incredibly moving film about Jean-Do’s life. He is the successful Elle magazine editor who wakes up one day totally paralyzed from a stroke – a rare case of what the doctor describes (en anglais) as locked-in syndrome. He is only able to move one eyelid (the other sewn shut to prevent the cornea getting septic), blinking once for yes and twice for no. The first part of the full movie tells of his rehab followed by the writing of his memoir. (His memoir is available online in English.)
Writer/director Schnabel (Before Night Falls, Basquiat) wisely tells his story from Jean-Do’s (as he calls himself) point of view, the camera lens replacing the protagonist’s one eye. The screen often goes blank once or twice as the protagonist communicates his answers whether affirmative or negative. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly takes an hour to document the rehabilitation and the other hour to describe what happens after. What makes the movie tick is Schnabel’s portrait of Dominque as a man full of human failings. He is a womanizer before his stroke and even after, he insists on watching his mistress despite the fact that the wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) who he has left, selflessly attends to his needs.
The agony, regrets, frustration and achievements are well documented cinematically. Director Schnabel often puts the audience in discomfort to experience the pain undergone by Bauby. But mostly, he comforts and fills the film with bright lighting, reassuring visuals and lively music (such as Claude DeBussy’s La Mer). The most moving segments are his encounters with his father played by the ageless Max Von Sydow and his miss.
Even audiences not in the medical or rehabilitation field will be given some welcome insight. The learning of communication and writing of the book through letters is eye-opening. For example, Jean reads the alphabet not from a to z but from the most frequently used letter letter to the least. One unfortunate feature is that the subtitles do not match during these parts. Spelling ‘I’ in English is ‘I’ whereas the translation begins with the letter ‘j’ for ‘je’.
Director Schnabel deservedly won the best direction award at Cannes for this remarkable piece of humanity. This is a most appropriate choice for a movie you can watch about the triumph of the human spirit that opens on Christmas Day.