October 03, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Directed by Julian Schnabel

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor of French Elle magazine. At the age of 43, he suffered a stroke that left most of his body paralyzed. With the assistance of his physical therapists and transcriber, he communicated through the blinking of his left eyelid and spent 14 months authoring an autobiography The Diving Bell and the Butterfly before his death in 1997. This staggering true story is the basis of Julian Schnabel’s new film of the same name, and fortunately the painter/director has the good sense to not turn it into some sort of uplifting schmaltz like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside.

Instead, Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood capture all the inner demons – the shame of having to be cared for, the suicidal thoughts, the defeatist attitude, the embittered selfishness – that Bauby, played by Mathieu Amalric, had to battle. The film doesn’t make him out to be an inspirational hero, because he was all too human. Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his two children whom he never married, dutifully remained by his side in the hospital despite his infidelity. In a heartbreaking scene, his mistress Inés (Agathe de la Fontine) calls, and Céline even facilitates the conversation and tells Inés that Bauby’s been waiting for her visit. Céline then finally breaks down and runs out of the room.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly isn’t entirely anguished and depressing either. Schnabel’s painterly eye creates stunning imagery based on Bauby’s cherished memories and vivid imagination. The generosity and dedication of his physical therapists Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) and Marie (Olatz Lopez Garamendia) also make one deeply appreciative of the human race’s capacity for compassion.

Bauby told the truth and nothing but in his autobiography, and Harwood and Schnabel faithfully depict his ordeal onscreen without filtering it through subjective editorializing. They don’t sugarcoat the fact that Bauby could be horribly disagreeable and difficult to deal with, but the viewers could still relate to him and care about his plight. If this film were in the hands of a Steven Spielberg or a Ron Howard, it probably would not be nearly as genuine and heartfelt.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.