• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:March 9, 2019

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Trapped in a Body


Here’s a story that would fit as a subject for a TV movie of the week. A man incapacitated by a stroke ‚Äď why, that could be the new cancer! But director Julian Schnabel and his cast and crew show what a huge difference there is when a serious filmmaker tackles the subject and uses every trick he can come up with to convey the pain of the ill-stricken, without turning the depressing content into a schmaltz fest.

The film begins in Berck, France, where Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the editor of Elle magazine, wakes up after a 20-day long coma. He remembers suffering a stroke and now he’s unable to speak or move any part of his body except for one of his eyes. His doctor tells him that he suffers from Locked-in syndrome; his mind is intact, but the only part of his body that he’ll ever be able to move is that left eye. A speech therapist, Henriette Roi (Marie-Jos√©e Croze), helps him develop a system of communication; she reads a list of letters to him and he blinks when she says the first letter of the word he wants to express.

As time goes by, Jean-Do (as he’s called by friends and family) reconnects with his estranged wife C√©cile (Emmanuelle Seigner) and decides to write a book about his experiences, dictating to a secretary hired by Elle, who writes down the meaning of his every blink.

Using memories and fantasies
Imagining what it would be like to become a prisoner in one’s own body is a horrible feeling and makes you think hard about how you live your life; in this case though the protagonist kind of lived life to the fullest even before disaster struck. The film was based on the true story of what happened to Bauby; a short while after his book was published, he died of pneumonia.

Rather than simply portraying a journey to hell, Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood use the imagination, fantasies and memories expressed by the Elle editor to illustrate what was going on inside his mind, creating several touching and illuminating sequences where we learn more about him and his life. They also try to make us understand what the condition feels like by having the beginning of the film shot from Bauby’s perspective; at first, we only see what he saw when he woke from his coma. Schnabel read the script while nursing his dying father, which undoubtedly gives the film a highly personal touch, not least in the exceptional, gripping scenes between Jean-Do and his father (Max von Sydow, who’s brilliant). Together with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the director also creates several visually stunning sequences where Bauby is outdoors, mulling over what his life looked like up until the stroke. The film as a whole is quite poetic; there’s the images and the fantasies, including Bauby’s view of himself as caught inside a diving bell in the ocean, a vivid mind trapped in a suit too heavy to move.

The film ends with a scene that shows the moment when Jean-Do had his stroke; by then we know him and his family so well that the emotional impact of the event is quite powerful. It should also be noted that Amalric and Croze both are excellent as the patient and the therapist.

In all of his films, Schnabel has portrayed strong real-life individuals who have fought the odds; Jean-Do joins Jean Michel Basquiat and Reinaldo Arenas as people whom the director admires. This is however the film that definitively puts him on the map, showing how rich and to a certain extent positive a human being’s life can be even though his mind has lost its body.

2007-U.S.-France. 112 min. Color. Produced by¬†Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik. Directed by¬†Julian Schnabel. Screenplay: Ronald Harwood. Novel: Jean-Dominique Bauby. Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Editing: Juliette Welfling. Cast: Mathieu Amalric (Jean-Dominique Bauby), Emmanuelle Seigner (C√©line Desmoulin), Marie-Jos√©e Croze (Henriette Roi), Anne Consigny, Patrick Chesnais, Niels Arestrup… Max von Sydow.

Trivia: French title: Le scaphandre et la papillon. Johnny Depp was allegedly considered for the part of Jean-Do.

BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Foreign Language Film, Director. Cannes: Best Director. 

Last word: “I was always scared to die my whole life. The question I‚Äôve asked myself is, When is that moment when you feel like you can accept your own death? When it‚Äôs just not a freakout any more? I thought Jean-Do was reporting back from this place that nobody had ever reported back from. And for that year that he wrote the book he became an artist. He found his interior life. He was able to transgress [sic] death by writing that book. To find that kind of peace [as Jean-Do did] is a confidante [sic] to anybody who might be sick or alone. Because you feel it happening to you and to him at the same time and the line between those two things is invisible.” (Schnabel, Indiewire)



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