The survival of the human spirit against almost insurmountable odds is nowhere illustrated more clearly than in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel’s film about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine. At the age of just 43, he suffered a stroke, rendering his brain inactive. He lapsed into a coma to wake up 20 days later, the victim of a rare “locked in” syndrome that left him mentally alert but permanently deprived of movement and speech. The title refers to the “diving bell” of his paralysis and the “butterflies” of his dreams and imagination.
Schnabel, who received the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival, shoots everything from Dauby’s point of view. Mathieu Amalric incarnates the man who, despite his condition, maintains his lust for life right up until his death two years on. His interior monologue is full of caustic and witty comments on his state and those around him, including Patrick Chesnais as a rather condescending medic.
In this way, the viewer is given the chance to experience the same confusion and disorientation as Dauby as he awakens in his hospital bed and begins to realize he can neither move nor speak. From this stance we meet some of the people in his life: his children Theophile (Theo Sampaio) and Celeste (Fiorella Campanella); their mother Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner); speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze); and Claude (Anne Consigny), who takes dictation for his book, which he finishes writing just three days before his death. There’s also an anguished performance by Max von Sydow as his aging father barely able to cope with his son’s catastrophe.
Schnabel, an artist-turned-filmmaker who previously made Basquiat and Before Night Falls, possesses an imaginative eye that avoids the obvious and mawkish.
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais and Max von Sydow
Director: Julian Schnabel
Screenwriter: Ronald Harwood
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik
Genre: Drama; French-language, subtitled
Rating: PG-13 for nudity, sexual content and some language
Running time: 114 min.
Release date: November 30, 2007 ltd., December 25 exp.