At the age of 43, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor-in-chief of French Elle, suffered a stroke. When Bauby woke 20 days later, he learned he was suffering from “locked-in syndrome.” His mind was intact, but due to paralysis Bauby was unable to speak and only able to communicate by blinking his left eye.
Using a system where the letters of the alphabet were arranged by frequency of use in the French language, Bauby blinked when the letter he was thinking of was read. This is how Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote his resonating memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was published two days before his death in 1996, a year after his initial stroke.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a challenging work to bring to the screen. Much of the narrative is Bauby’s thoughts as his mind wanders to escape the daily stress of his paralysis. But director Julian Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood take Bauby’s mesmerizing prose and adapt the into a film that is equally breathtaking.
French actor Mathieu Amalric portrays Jean-Dominique, an unbelievably demanding role. But Amalric rises to the challenge, perfectly balancing every aspect of Bauby’s life, before and after his stroke. Most importantly his character is true to the novel; he is never cliché or undignified.
Likewise, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze and Max von Sydow are exceptional in their roles as Celine-Bauby’s former partner-his speech therapist and his aging father, respectively.
While performance is essential to this film, Schnabel’s exceptional direction makes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly unlike any other viewing experience. The narrative begins with the flutter of an eyelid and the realization that you are in Bauby’s mind as he learns of the effects of his stroke. Nearly every frame is constructed so the world is as Bauby sees it-blurry, off-kilter and restricted.
But Schnabel delves further into Bauby’s life experiences, weaving between his imagination, his past and his relationships with friends and family. This allows the viewer to not only experience Bauby’s wonderfully fulfilling life, but to explore the power of imagination and the essence of being alive. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a daring film that does not fall into an obvious trap of sappiness or melodrama. It is an inspiring, visually tantalizing and truly beautiful film.
Since its release in May 2007, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has received endless international and domestic acclaim at events like the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival and the Golden Globes. Recently, the film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Editing. While it was ineligible in the Best Foreign Language Film competition, Julian Schnabel’s nomination solidifies The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as one of the best films of 2007.
If you had asked me last week which films I wanted to win the most Academy Awards, I would have picked There Will Be Blood or Juno. But now, having seen Schnabel’s brilliant adaptation of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I hope that this film gets the edge it needs to beat out Hollywood’s big names on Oscar night and get the recognition it deserves.
Published: Mount Holyoke News
February 7, 2008
Updated October 20, 2010