Director: J Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric and Marie-Josée Croze
Runtime: 112 mins
Rating: * * * *
After the opening credits, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly stages a brave half-hour during which we see only what Jean-Dominique Bauby, a sufferer of locked-in syndrome, is able to. Frustration and sexual desires are beautifully conveyed via the direction of his glance, his sardonic observations, and his memories and imagination.
The film’s portrayal of suffering is intensely individual in detailing the life of this charismatic, successful newpaper editor, reduced by a rare illness to communicating only through the blinking of one eye. Yet somehow the film resonates on the realistic, social level achieved by two other dramatic accounts of serious physical handicap, My Left Foot and The Sea Inside. When Bauby cries, the scene blurs. The breasts and lips of his female companions and helpers are put in focus, but surrounded by white-blue hospital pallor – the scenery of his diving bell. As people hover close to him we see their ugliness and fatigue revealed in rough stubble and dark eyelids, a harsh view for a man used to beauty.
The film diversifies from this view, however, to extend the portrayal of his physiotherapist, scribe, partner, ex-partner and especially his speech-therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), who devises a system of communication. She lists the letters in order of their frequency of use, so that Bauby may blink at the correct letter to form his desired word. A sparse soundtrack is dominated by the letters E-S-A-R-I-N, which form a mournful chant that affirms his consciousness but whose repetition is a necessary torture. His first words are ‘je veux morir’ (I want to die), but he learns far more from staying alive, even his state of paralysis.
An inability to respond efficiently to friends and family causes him great emotional difficulty, depicted in a way that doesn’t seek to exploit or to cheaply over-dramatise. His role as a man is questioned; sexually confident before the accident, he now extrapolates sexual desire to representations of fraternal bonds, seeing it in lighthouses, in the man who carries him around the swimming pool, in the relationship between father and son, and how the son’s growth declares the father irrelevant.
Roger Ebert said that this film was about how the senses are a toolbox for human consciousness, which is what is central to a real existence. Yet this definition only validates the idea of the diving bell. The butterfly aspect is what he discovers upon becoming handicapped, the transcendence of his disability; he rediscovers guilt, the beauty of nature and a literary talent that supplied the memoirs upon which the film is based. The strength of the film lies in its short, intimate moments. A son wipes the saliva from his father’s mouth, demonstrating the inevitability of the ageing process. The image that lingers is that of Bauby, in a wheelchair, on a platform, watching the sea, escaping.