The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)French Title: Le scaphandre et le papillon
Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), editor of the French Elle magazine, suffered a stroke while driving his son. He wakes up, completely immobile except for his left eye. His condition, aptly called "locked-in syndrome," makes it extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, for him to communicate to other people. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the novel Jean-Do (Bauby's nickname) authored and released a few days prior to his death, proves otherwise. Jean-Do dictates by blinking his left eye as his assistant (Anne Consigny) patiently connects the dots through the process, involving the complete alphabet organized and spoken in the order of frequency of use, Jean-Do's speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze) devised.
Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly opens in overt absurdity, with Jean-Do waking up to the flurried questionings of the doctors around him, for which he has legible answers for but is unable to vocalize due to his locked-in condition. Jean-Do's inherent wit and personality is reflected by his internal monologues while his initial confusion and later on, other emotions which cannot be enunciated effectively by his immense wit and vocabulary, are communicated through Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, which exquisitely approximates Jean-Do's limited visual perspective. Amidst the atmosphere of prevailing excitement, the camera swings back and forth the faces of the doctors, though limited in reach and motion causing the frame to be composed of incomplete figures and visages. When he blinks, the camera blinks with him. When he cries, the camera moistens, blurring the frame and turning the figures into indecipherable clouds of emotions repressed and covered by his physical paralysis.
Jean-Do sees his reflection from the metallic walls of his hospital as he is moved from his room to the balcony. His internal monologue provides ample humor to the travail of seeing himself in a sorry state, his face carries a permanent grimace while pasted in a head that is nestled uncomfortably by his static shoulder. Previously, Schnabel visualizes a portion of Jean-Do's memory, where he dashingly blasts through a photoshoot for his fashion magazine, with the studio teeming with half-naked female models and photographers, all of whom worship beauty. Schnabel fathoms the unpredictable and cruel nature of fate, prompting Jean-Do's internal and external torture with memories of the past that painfully connect to his present situation.
Schnabel further enunciates the irony of Jean-Do's fate, diverting the narrative to another of Jean-Do's bittersweet memories, where he shaves his father (Max Von Sydow, in a performance that is quietly spectacular, especially in one scene where he attempts to talk to his son by phone but gets irked by the unavoidable mechanicality of their communication) and they talk about their respective lives and ex-wives. Jean-Do returns to his miserable present, still surrounded by beautiful females and caring companions, yet burdened by his fated incapacity and diminished existence, altogether banished by his astounding feat of completing his novel.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly could have gone the road of typical underdog stories (glamorizing psychological afflictions the way Ron Howard did in the abysmally syrupy A Beautiful Mind (2001)). Instead, Schnabel withdrew from convention, knowing fully well that the a one-sentence synopsis of Jean Dominique Bauby's triumph is enough to inspire and that the tale does not require further amplifications and embellishments to elicit inspiration, and did something remarkable. He crafted a film that is fueled not by the uniqueness of the human story it intends to tell, but by the mostly internal procedures that dominate Jean-Do's struggles, from the gloominess of his stagnant predicament to the life-saving expanses of his vast imagination. Schnabel weaves into Jean-Do's story threads that direct the attention from the inspiring underdog tale to the intricacies of Jean-Do's persistence in maintaining his humanity. Schnabel succeeded not only in telling the story in a manner that is both visually alluring in a way that is technically intriguing but also penetrated the surface melodrama, examining the mechanism that drove Jean-Do from lavish Earth to dismal Hell and finally, into immortality.