Painter-filmmaker Julian Schnabel’s third picture — and by far his finest to date — is a celebration of the imagination. Imagination was nearly all 43-year-old Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby had left after suffering a massive stroke in 1995. A victim of a rare condition known as “locked-in syndrome,” he had a mind that remained fully functional, while his body was paralyzed except for one eye. With the help of a speech therapist who would recite the alphabet until he blinked to select a letter, Bauby managed the herculean feat of dictating a memoir — which became an international bestseller.
Because Bauby’s book reflects on the experience of adapting to an existence without movement or sensation, devising a way to make it work as a movie also required no small amount of imagination. Together with screenwriter Ronald (The Pianist) Harwood and longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Schnabel has succeeded brilliantly, by taking us inside Bauby’s head and through the universe of memory, emotion and fantasy he created to live in. They come as close as anyone has, I think, to capturing human consciousness on film.
In the opening scenes, we see what Bauby sees as he emerges from a coma. The camera is his eye. Hospital staff flicker in and out of focus. Time lurches and zigzags as he fades in and out of wakefulness. Doctors explain his condition to him. We hear him reply, but no one else can. Little by little, the nature of his nightmare sinks in.
When an attractive young woman (Marie-Josée Croze) arrives to introduce the system that will permit him to communicate with the outside world, the first message Bauby spells out is “I want to die.” And yet, it isn’t long before the former playboy and bon vivant finds the resolve within himself to renounce self-pity. The director signals the significance of the moment by shifting the picture’s POV. The audience sees the post-stroke Bauby at virtually the same moment he sees himself for the first time, catching his reflection in a window as he’s wheeled out to a hospital terrace overlooking the sea. “God, who’s that?” he thinks. “I look like I came out of a vat of formaldehyde.”
The splendid French actor Mathieu Amalric gives two performances in the lead role — one as the hip celebrity trendsetter who appears in Bauby’s recollections and dreams, and the other as the darting, protruding eye attached to the stroke victim’s shriveled body. Tying the two together is an interior monologue in which Amalric gives voice to the warmth, sadness, lust and humor that fueled Bauby’s inner life and made his book such a remarkable creation.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is filled with stunning imagery and transcendently human moments. In one scene, the patient says to himself, “I’m sick of TV dinners. Where could I dine tonight?” Next thing you know, he’s feasting at Le Duc in his pajamas with a beautiful companion. In another, he relives a favorite moment — shaving his 92-year-old father (played by a never better Max Von Sydow), who tells him, “I’m proud of you.” One of the most powerful scenes depicts the Father’s Day Bauby spent on the beach outside the hospital, surrounded by his children. He kept them from seeing him in his paralyzed state until he came to the realization that “Even a sketch, a shadow, a fragment of a dad is still a dad.”
Among the movie’s numerous achievements is its ability to tell the story of a man confronting catastrophic illness without succumbing to bathos or becoming just another disease-of-the-week weepie. It’s one of the most singular stories of heroism you’re ever likely to see. One of the most visually adventurous, as well. “I can imagine anything,” Bauby wrote. And I suppose that’s true of us all — though a more artful adaptation of his book would be difficult to conceive.