An Expertly Crafted Account of Life Trapped in Your Own Body
2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a biographical account of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of ELLE magazine, and how his life was transformed after suffering from a massive stroke that left him with a condition known as Locked-in Syndrome. Based on this premise, two questions arise; the first of which is fairly straightforward. What is Locked-in Syndrome? Locked-in Syndrome, or LIS, is a condition where a sufferer is mentally cognizant and aware, but subject to full body paralysis except for eye and eyelid movements. The victim of LIS is ‘locked-in’ their own body with no way to even communicate with the outside world. The second question that comes up when discussing this biographical film of Jean-Dominique Bauby is how to tell a compelling story when the primary figure has total body paralysis? Director Julian Schnabel and writer Ronald Harwood have answered that question and then some with this wholly unique film.
Writer Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) and Director Julian Schnabel approached Bauby’s life as a non-linear story overlaid with multiple shifting point-of-views to deliver a holistic representation of what Bauby went through, what those around him experienced, and how his life was changed by his affliction. Schnabel uses the most inventive filming techniques he has available to allow viewers to best understand the limitations and horrors of Locked-in Syndrome. The film can be cleanly divided into three unique phases as Bauby becomes more familiar and less limited by his condition.
The first phase is a first person point-of-view from the eyes of Bauby – locked in his unresponsive body with him as his confused mind narrates the questions and struggles he is suddenly faced with – where is he, what is going on, how to communicate with the world. This narration by Bauby continues throughout the length of the film to great affect, helping the audience to understand Bauby’s state of mind. Eventually, the camera’s focal range widens to see the limited world around him – his hospital room, the world he can see outside his window, the streaming line of caretakers filtering through his room.
Finally, especially in the second half of the film, there are regular shifts between the present-day Bauby trapped in his broken body,and the times before the paralysis. Bauby remembers and relives experiences with those most important to his life – his father, his children, and the women in his life. Flashback vignettes are typically filmed in semi-surrealist camera framing; signifying these are memories playing like films in Bauby’s mind.
Schnabel takes his film one step further, into the only place Bauby ha found to escape his turmoil – in his own mind. Schnabel presents viewers with the bet way Jean-Dominique Bauby was ever able to describe his syndrome – being deep underwater in a diving bell, in a total and utter vacuum away from the world. Scenes of actor Mathieu Amalric, who portrays Bauby, in a diving bell deep in his water prison are overlaid with hospital room scenes of Bauby’s lifeless body sitting for hours on end with nothing but his mind to keep him company. This leads to the second part of the film’s title – the butterfly. Bauby’s mind is the butterfly – that can bring him to anywhere in the world and think anything he wants; only limited by his imagination. Director Schnabel juxtaposes these ‘mind vacations’ in frenzy cuts and colorful visuals paired with lavish music numbers that contrasts the isolation he feels in his body.
Taking nothing away from Mathieu Amalric’s depiction of Bauby; this film is as much, if not more about the women in Bauby’s life – the ones who never gave up on him. There is Emmanuelle Seigner’s Celine; mother of his children, who keeps his relationship with his children alive long after many other friends and family have given up visiting. There is Anne Consigny’s Claude, his memoir scribe who faithfully and tediously works with Bauby to put to words his account of life trapped in his body. And of most significant, Marie-Josee Croze’s Henriette; Bauby’s speech therapist who wouldn’t let him give up on life no matter how desperate the situation. Henriette eventually helps Bauby develop communication through rapid eye movements to dictate the memoir this film is based on. These women’s trials and conflicted feelings are displayed through the actresses’ emotive faces; framed closely by Schnabel’s lens. With the directness of Schnabel’s camera as he shows Celine, Claude, and Henriette – viewers are given no choice to look away; just as those women cannot look away from the vulnerable Bauby and his tragic life.
- Screenwriting: 9/10 – Writer Ronald Harwood’s complex script provides understanding of Locked-in Syndrome – especially though Bauby’s narration
- Directing: 10/10 – Credit goes to director Julian Schnabel for bringing a complex script to the screen
- Cinematography: 10/10 – A wide range of techniques are used to present Bauby’s life from his POV, and from those most close to him
- Acting: 9/10 – A talented cast of actresses give viewers an empathetic focal point
9/10 – Through non-traditional timelines, inventive storytelling, and avant-garde camera techniques; Director Julian Schnabel crafted The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to show not only the limitations of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s condition – his Diving Bell, but the vast worlds he could create in his mind – his Butterfly. As the viewer, traveling through both worlds provides a unique and comprehensive understanding of Bauby’s life before and after his affliction takes hold.