Julian Schnabel’s film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” proves that tragedy can be beautiful.
The French film is aesthetically pleasing, but the film’s true story is even more striking.
Based on a memoir by a former editor of Elle magazine, the film and the book tell the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life after a stroke and subsequent affliction of locked-in syndrome.
Locked-in syndrome is exactly how it sounds. Victims are stuck and paralyzed – seemingly unable to communicate. In Bauby’s case, he’s able to use only his left eye.
And, if you haven’t figured it out, the most amazing part of this story is that this man wrote his memoir while paralyzed.
Writing anything worthy of publication is a feat in itself. But imagine this.
The bottom falls out from your successful life, and you can’t bathe yourself or speak or move. Yet you write a laudable 130-page memoir with your left eye.
Bauby’s story is the embodiment of a triumph.
He communicates with the help of a friend or a speech therapist. They recite the alphabet in order of frequency, and Bauby blinks when they say the correct letter. More simply, one blink means yes and two is no.
Schnabel captures this story beautifully.
Camera angles are often awkward, there are tons of close-ups, the edges of scenes can be blurry, and the whole experience is slightly disorienting.
But these aren’t cinematographic criticisms.
The film is disorienting because it’s partly shot from Bauby’s point of view, and this creative choice does a fantastic job of giving the audience an idea of what he experienced.
Bauby’s thoughts, memories and fantasies also help convey his mind’s inner workings.
In the film, he says, “I decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed, my imagination and my memory.”
Lying in bed with his contorted face, his one wide eye and drool dripping down the side of his mouth, Bauby has only his mind left. He lives in his head.
We see memories of his successful life as a high-roller in the fashion industry.
Schnabel also shows Bauby’s feelings through his imagination and through fantasy.
We see Bauby sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss while imprisoned in a diving bell, and we see him on an isolated pier on the shore of the ocean.
And after Bauby bemoans another hospital T.V. dinner, we’re transported into Bauby’s head.
He imagines a lavish dinner with his ex-wife, eating oyster after oyster, as they French-kiss over plates of food.
And while this may sound boring, a fourth of the film takes place in Bauby’s hospital bed.
But when anything happens in his room – when a nurse turns on the T.V. or a doctor checks his vital signs – Bauby’s mind is chattering away. And surprisingly, these encounters are usually amusing.
When a nurse turns off Bauby’s T.V., you hear him shout complaints in his own head, cursing the nurse.
Or when his attractive speech therapist comes in, you hear Bauby make subtle sexual remarks.
And that’s another commendation. “The Diving Bell” doesn’t try to be sad (unlike “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Titanic”).
The film isn’t set to sorrowful music. Schnabel simply takes Bauby’s story and tells it at face value.
And, like so many of the films I enjoy, it feels more human, genuine and almost less-cinematic. Schnabel doesn’t aim to have you grasping for the nearest box of Kleenex.
Ultimately, “The Diving Bell” is a beautiful experiential look into how an amazing man dealt with utmost tragedy.