The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Review by © Jane Freebury

As it turns out, the director of this film is an American who learned French to make it, because he felt the story would work best in its original language. Julian Schnabel really has got it right. The New York visual artist has only made a couple of other films, Basquiat and Before Night Falls, both with a distinctive touch, and now his new work dares to go where few others have.

It’s a superb film, unsentimental and robust, adapted by Ron Harwood (The Pianist) from the book of the same name published in 1997, the memoir of a former editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine who suffered a massive stroke and became a prisoner inside his own body, only able to communicate with the blink of an eye. A system worked out by his therapist involved identifying letters of the alphabet so that one blink recorded a ‘yes’ while two blinks meant ‘no’. It’s no stretch to imagine how long it took to write the 139-page book.

It is a deeply engaging. Without preliminaries to set the scene, it opens up in a visually arresting way behind the eyes of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Almaric, a lively, faunlike face when we see him in flashback) who is becoming conscious again after weeks in a coma. As focus drifts in and out and neurologists and therapists peer into his eyes for signs of life it becomes apparent that the patient is ‘locked-in’. The way the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski conveys his condition is a marvel.

Jean-Do’s predicament is a desperate one, similar to what we remember only too well in films like ‘The Sea Inside’ and plays like ‘Whose Life Is It Anyway?’ but gloom is only fleeting and the film bounces along as the patient lets his imagination take him wherever it fancies. Faces come and go – hospital staff, family, friends –looking earnest and strained. If only they could hear the conversation inside Jean-Do’s head.

An attractive blonde therapist arrives to teach him how to swallow again and Jean-Do, who was in the prime of life at 43 years of age and a magnet for beautiful women, mocks himself gently. Such a glorious vision, up close, rolling her tongue and tilting her head back! ‘It’s not fair’ for a man in his condition.

For someone who must have been the most self-assured and extrovert of men, his predicament was almost ridiculous. Yet it’s fine to laugh with him about it – and also to see life for a while as Jean-Do saw it, as an outsider, and appreciate its beauty.

4.5 stars