Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner,áMarie-JosÚe Croze, Anne Consigny, Max von Sydow. Rated PG-13.
In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of a
prominent French fashion magazine, suffered a massive stroke at the age of 43.
Twenty days later, he awoke from a coma in a hospital near Calais, completely
immobilized save for his ability to blink his left eyelid. A victim of
“locked-in” syndrome, Bauby retained full mental capacity, but found himself
trapped in a body that refused to respond to all but one simple command.
From there, his improbable odyssey
began. Taught to
communicate by a speech therapist who patiently recited the alphabet while
watching for Bauby's timely blinks, he gradually piecedá his thoughts
together in a soulful yet unsentimental manuscript that became a bestselling
memoir and the basis for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The man who had once reveled in the heady pleasures
of Parisian nightlife and held sway over the city's fashionable elite was able
to document his paralysis in a fashion that was at once horrific, darkly
comical and, ultimately, life-affirming. Determined to leave behind a testament
to his abbreviated time on earth, Bauby died just days after its publication.
account of his experiences at the Berck
Maritime Hospital and his unapologetic ruminations on the wild life that
preceded them hardly seem suited to cinematic adaptation, but Julian Schnabel,
who previously directed Basquiat and Before
Night Falls, has created a magnificent film
that pays tribute to the late journalist in honest, unflinching fashion.
Remarkably, it does so without a hint of mawkish sentimentality, though it is
impossible to witness Bauby's struggles without being profoundly moved.
that Bauby, as played by Mathieu Amalric (Munich),
is above finding the humor in his predicament.
While caregivers regard him with pity through his 14-month stay, he snickers
inwardly at the desperate absurdity of his imprisonment and greets pretty
nurses with a wicked unseen smile. He is frightened at first, then bitter, but
with acceptance comes the peace of mind that allows him to experience a
spiritual awakening that is uplifting without seeming contrived. He asks
forgiveness from no one, though he ruefully acknowledges the indiscretions that
have marked his personal life.
Amalric’s performance is both subdued and expertly
As the young Jean-Do, he moves gracefully across the screen with the suave
self-assurance befitting a man of his elevated stature; after the stroke, his
lip droops awkwardly and his eye spasmodically wanders, as though searching for
an escape from his cell. It is a star-making turn for Amalric, who makes Bauby
human without making him out as a saint.
Still, the real star of Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Schnabel’s camera, which shows us the world first
through Bauby’s eye – a blurry series of confusing images that are illuminated
with time – and later through his liberating imagination, which allows him to
revisit fond memories of childhood and the fantasies, shot inábrilliant
hues, that invigorate his spirit. The reality of his situation is never
forgotten, but Schnabel doesn’t dwell on it. He tells a story that ends in
death while celebrating life and all its unforeseen twists, both cruel and miraculous.