The most outstanding element of 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' is, that a movie which primarily takes place inside someone's head (and someone who's just had a stroke to cap it all) can be so dynamic. Movement in this film is not restricted to the doctors and nurses who swarm around Jean-Dominique Bauby's bed, coming into and out of focus, but it also involves the patient's vivid inner world.
Whereas in 'Basquiat' he painted a portrait of a self-destructive but highly talented artist and in 'Before Night Falls' he detailed the harassment to which the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas was subjected by the Castro government, in 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' director Julian Schnabel focuses on the trauma suffered by a man who is used to living 'la dolce vita'. Elle magazine's editor-in-chief Jean-Dominique Bauby is at the height of his physical and mental powers when he falls victim to what is known in the medical profession as 'locked-in syndrome'. His whole body is paralysed except for his left eye. Battling against the odds, he learns how to communicate using both that organ of sight and a special code developed by his therapist and his publisher.
'The Diving...' is a film about human resilience, misgivings and challenges. The resilience is provided by Jean-Do's U-turn after initial disappointment in his condition and despair. The ex-editor eventually changes his mind in regards to the possibilities his therapy offers and becomes more cooperative with his speech specialist. The anxiety is displayed mainly by Dominique's friends and his estranged wife, who don't know how to deal with this delicate situation. In one poignant scene and before his volte-face, Jean-Do gets his speech therapist to write: 'I want to die'. On reading these words she storms out of the room and although she apologises after, she realises that her reaction has more to do with her feelings than his. The challenges are various, not least his physical ones, but to Jean-Do's credit he does manage to face up to them.
The movie is also a good opportunity to see director Julian Schnabel at his artistic best, visually speaking. I always felt when I saw both 'Basquiat' and 'Before the Night Falls' that Schnabel was excluding from his movies the genre that brought him fame in the first place: painting. In the eighties he was known for his neo-expressionist work and several galleries around the world have exhibited his art. In 'The Diving...', luckily he doesn't hold back and gives us scenes that could only have been carved out by a visual artist in touch with his creative self. For instance the title of the film is based on an image of a diving bell symbolising imprisonment, whilst the butterfly is a metaphor for freedom, the freedom Jean-Do had but which is now denied to him by his present condition.
There's a lot of humour in the film from the outset. And it's the type of warped facetiousness that is shaped by a sudden upheaval of a person's circumstances. But it is also the type of gaiety that conveys sadness. From that perspective, 'The Diving...' might be a tough film to watch if the main character's plight is too close to home for the viewer.
My only disappointment is the movie trailer (clip below). For some strange reason the producers decided to arrange all the scenes in what would be the chronological and logical order. But that's not how it happens in the film. We come across Jean-Do's thoughts first as he is lying in bed. He tries to talk to the doctors but they cannot hear him. Slowly we find out why and what's happened. The end of the film is the beginning of the trailer. Whereas Julian Schnabel's movie is all about disorientation, trauma and loss, the trailer tries to give a coherent narrative to what is fundamentally an irrational and disjointed situation - not least for Jean-Do. Healthy today, bed-ridden tomorrow.
Yet, don't let that cautionary note put you off this film. It is superbly acted, the script is very strong and the direction flawless. I hope you enjoy it.
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 6th June at 10am (GMT)