'The Diving Bell': An Awakening Beyond Words

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

The most astonishing, poetic and powerful film of the season, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is essential viewing, not just for the deeply humanist principles that drive it but for the sublime proof it provides of cinema's abiding artistic relevance.

The facts of the story are these: On Dec. 8, 1995, 43-year-old Jean-Dominique Bauby, the stylish, high-living editor of French Elle, suffered a stroke and went into a coma. He woke up 20 days later having lost his power of speech and able to move only his left eyelid.

Despite his near-complete paralysis, Bauby still had all his acute, mordantly self-aware mental faculties intact. While enduring physical therapy and receiving the support of his family and friends, Bauby decided to dictate his memoirs through a painstaking system of blinking as the alphabet is read to him, letter by letter. The resulting book, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," was published just days before Bauby died of pneumonia at the age of 44.

In the film, Bauby is told by one of his doctors that he is suffering from a rare condition known as "locked-in syndrome." But if Bauby, portrayed in a breathtaking performance by Mathieu Amalric, is locked in, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is anything but. Directed with sensitivity, vision and unerring conviction by Julian Schnabel, the film takes what could have been an inspiring but inert tale of courage and survival and turns it into an expansive exploration of consciousness itself. Schnabel, a painter who became famous in the 1980s as one of that era's most notorious art stars, has made two accomplished films before this one: "Basquiat" and "Before Night Falls." With the masterpiece that is "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," it's time for him to admit it: He's a filmmaker. And a great one.

Schnabel, using a script by Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist"), is working at the height of his formidable powers. That is made clear from the opening moments of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," when Bauby awakens from his three-week coma not knowing where he is or what has happened to him. Throughout the ensuing hours and days, he's poked and prodded by doctors and therapists, culminating in a process wherein his damaged right eye is "occluded," or sewn shut.

It's a scene worthy of Luis Bu¿uel at his most merciless, and it's all captured from Bauby's own point of view in a triumph of editing and cinematography that immediately immerses the audience in Bauby's own experience. And not just the horrors of it: Bauby keeps up an often wickedly sardonic interior monologue throughout "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." He isn't afraid to offer an occasional flustered laugh at what's going on around him, whether it's a doctor blithely recounting a recent ski trip to St. Moritz while he stitches his eyelids together or the sight of two gorgeous therapists arriving like angels at his bedside. ("Just my luck, two beauties and I'm stuck," he thinks to himself.)

Schnabel does such an uncanny job of letting viewers into Bauby's own head that, when we get the first clear picture of what he looks like a half-hour into the movie, the moment comes as a shock (made all the more stunning by the montage that has gone before, of the pre-stroke Bauby looking for all the world like a young, dashing Roman Polanski). With a perpetually startled-looking left eye and sagging mouth, Amalric doesn't play the role of Bauby, he inhabits it in a performance that, for all its physical limitations, becomes increasingly subtle and expressive.

As the title of Bauby's book indicates, he eventually breaks free of the physical diving bell that is confining him, allowing himself to write his "motionless travel notes" on the wings of his mental butterfly. True to his subject, Schnabel does an extraordinary job of conveying Bauby's sense of powerlessness, but he often breaks the action out to the surrounding beach and sky, letting his protagonist and his story breathe. ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" has been handsomely shot by the veteran cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Its haunting piano score was composed by Paul Cantelon.)

In many ways, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" isn't about Bauby as much as it's about the friends, family and armada of professionals who join forces to help him heal. Bauby's therapists, Marie and Henriette (Olatz L¿pez Garmendia and Marie-Jos¿e Croze) are soon joined by C¿line (Emmanuelle Seigner), Bauby's estranged partner and mother of their children, and eventually by Claude (Anne Consigny), the co-author who will dutifully take Bauby's dictation as he reminisces about his life's achievements and regrets. Together, these women will tether Bauby to the life he reinvents at a naval hospital near Calais. Alternating among austere scenes of Bauby's recovery, lush flashbacks of his life in the Paris fast lane and occasional flights of magical realism, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" explores, with somber reflection and bits of observant humor, how Bauby can take a colleague's advice and "hold fast to the human inside you."

Those are words worthy of Primo Levi, an author Bauby often recalls, even if his heroes are Balzac, Dumas and Graham Greene. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is propelled by narrative tension, one strain having to do with whether Bauby will be visited by the lover he left his family for, the other between his own shaky religious faith and the religious devotion of the "vast network" of people who are praying for him.

Thus does "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" wind up being an improbably lyrical, even lush testament to the idea of life as loving and being loved. Thanks to Bauby's courage and honesty, and Schnabel's bravura interpretation of it, what could have been a portrait of impotence and suffering becomes a soaring ode to beauty, memory, imagination and spiritual liberation.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (112 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Bethesda Landmark) is rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual content and some profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company