Year of Release: 2007 Directed by Julian Schnabel. Starring Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestup, and Max von Sydow.
Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) flicks his eyes open and sees himself surrounded by hospital staff in a blurred room. The doctors begin speaking to him and he answers them. At least, he thinks he answers them. Although Jean-Do can hear his responses as he formulates them, he has lost his ability to speak. The doctors inform him he has woken up from a coma following a stroke and all of his body, except his eyes, is paralyzed.
The importance of Jean-Do’s eyes is stressed in the opening fifteen minute montage. This entire sequence is shot from his perspective as he lies unable to move in the hospital bed. The doctors move about him; he follow them with his eyes. Due to an injury in one eye, the picture is appropriately blurred. Once the bad eye is sown shut, the picture becomes clear whenever the camera adopts Jean-Do’s point of view in order to reflect his good eye.
Jean-Do’s good eye will be more important than he can imagine. After a period of despair, he decides to make the most of his situation. Using his one good eye, Jean-Do blinks in order to communicate. At first his communication is simple: one blink for yes and two for no. Soon one of his therapists devises a system in which he can dictate by blinking. Using this system, he begins writing a book for a contract that he had with a publisher prior to the stroke.
Director Julian Schnabel makes incredible use of cinematography. He alternates between Jean-Do’s point of view and an observant third person viewpoint. Once Schnabel has firmly established Jean-Do’s perspective, he switches to a third person viewpoint so the viewer can observe Jean-Do and his visitors as they interact. At this point Amalric does an incredible job of holding a single pose and portraying a vegetative state. Through his one open eye, Amalric depicts concern and interest in his surroundings. A particularly touching scene occurs at the beach with Jean-Do’s children as they embrace their father, care for him, and play hangman with him. Another moving scene takes place towards the end of the film when Jean-Do begs for some time alone to listen to one person speak to him.
In addition to the aftermath of the stroke, the film also portrays Jean-Do’s imagined fantasies and flashbacks before the stroke. To differentiate from the present, these scenes are always shot in third person. One recurring fantasy is an underwater shot of a diver trapped in a diving bell, helpless and dependent on the wire for life. Another fantasy occurs out in forests and open fields with young butterflies flying through the flowers after hatching from the confinement of their chrysalises. It is fairly obvious that Jean-Do views the diver as himself and the butterflies as what he wants to become, springing out of his impaired body and flying away.
The flashbacks show the viewer the moments of his life that Jean-Do valued most. Caring for his aging father, bonding with his son, and spending time with his mistress are the most frequent flashbacks. There is one brief flashback to his career as a magazine editor, but this occurs when someone mentions his former job, and it does not return. His connections with others were most important to him, and in his paralysis he values other people’s presence more than anything else.
From the very beginning of the film, there is a clear element against euthanasia. In the opening scene Jean-Do is mentally active, aware of all his surroundings, and very much alive. Even though he can neither move nor speak, he mentally responds to questions and is shocked when the doctors cannot hear him. His inner monologues are voiced and he comments on everything that people say and do around him. When Jean-Do becomes depressed about his situation and asks for death, his therapist lectures him on how lucky he is to be alive and to be able to communicate at all.
The score reflects Jean-Do’s mood and his struggles. At first there is very little underscoring. Only an occasional melancholy solo piano reflects Jean-Do’s isolation and despondency as he accepts the severity of his situation. During the butterfly fantasy the music becomes more lively and begins to incorporate other instruments. This continues as Jean-Do incorporates more people into his life at the hospital.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly provides a breathtaking and inspiring glimpse into a paralyzed man’s life, a window into a life just as meaningful and complete as any other life.
Content Advisory: Several fleeting but explicit scenes of nudity, sexual situations, and occasional crass language. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Adults.
Personal Recommendation: A-