The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
On December 8, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the 43-year-old editor of ElleFrance magazine and a wealthy Parisian socialite, suffered a massive stroke which decimated his brain stem. When he awoke almost three weeks later, he found he was mute, and with the exception of his left eye, completely paralyzed. It was a rare condition the doctors referred to as "locked-in syndrome" — the body is completely useless while the mind is active and engaged.
Unable to communicate except by blinking his eye once for yes and twice for no, Bauby's devoted physical therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) devises an ingenious if tedious method of rudimentary communication. By arranging the letters of the alphabet on a chart with those used most frequently at the top and those used least near the bottom, Bauby blinks in response to hearing the desired letter read off, and with agonizingly sluggishness and incalculable patience on the part of both reader and the responder, his mind begins to emerge. His first words since the accident are simply: "I want death."
Gradually Bauby comes to accept his fate and when he does, his words pour forth. Contracted for a modern retelling of Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo at the time of his debilitating accident, Bauby lets it be known that he intends to fulfill his obligation. His publisher dispatches Claude (Anne Consigny), a woman of breathtaking patience, who sits with Bauby nearly every day, building what becomes a personal memoir about captivity and freedom out of mere sentences a day. The book took roughly 200,000 blinks to dictate, each word taking approximately two minutes to convey. Bauby would spend his evenings composing and editing the book entirely in his head, and dictate it one letter at a time the following day.
Bauby likens his captivity to being locked inside a diving bell, shut off from the world, feeling the smothering pressure of an infinite ocean, and hearing only the sound of his own voice trapped inside his internal prison. Even though he can't speak, we have access to the thoughts that, unimpeded, ricochet this way and that off the confines of his still vibrant and effervescent brain. Like a butterfly wiggling its way from of its cocoon and flying away, Bauby's imagination and memory are far from paralyzed. With his mind, Bauby discovers he can go anywhere, do anything, be with anyone. His fantasies begin with whimsical relish but quickly become trips into esoteric splendor and sublime tranquility. For perhaps the first time in his life, Bauby finds peace and serenity precisely at the moment of his greatest imprisonment.
Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, a testament to life, love, bitter disillusionment and gallows humor, was published in France on March 6, 1997 to rave reviews. Jean-Dominique Bauby died of heart failure two days later.
American painter/director Julian Schnabel (who learned to speak French in order to helm the film) has created a dazzling, courageous piece of art, a hybrid half narrative and half experimental. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly spends an audacious amount of time locked into Bauby's point of view. For nearly half the film, we, like the man whose eyes we share, see only what is straight ahead of us. The camera has an extremely limited range of motion, restricted by the gaze of a man who no longer has the ability to even turn his head. People's faces appear as enormous caricatures, hovering grotesquely close to the lens, inducing an odd sort of nausea.