The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
A Film by Julian Schnabel
written by Ronald Harwood


The new film from artist and film-maker Julian Schnabel, is another strong success for the man whose first two outings, 1996's Basquiat and 2000's Before Night Falls were both well-made critical and commercial successes (judged by independent film standards). Schnabel showed a talent in both those films for mediating the "outsider" experience of his protagonists - the graffiti painter turned "art-star" Jean Michel Basquiat in the former and the exiled gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arienas in the latter - in a way that audiences could relate to and appreciate.

The screenplay of this film - by Ronald Harwood, adapted from the novel/memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby - tells the story of the transformation of a highly successful magazine editor by means of a catastrophic medical event - a sort of stroke - that leaves him mentally-alert and fully conscious, but trapped in a body where the only control he can exert is over one eye. The real Bauby suffered just such an event and the major trajectory of the rest of his life was the creation of a book about his experience, which he "wrote" by dictating it letter-by-letter to a patient and dedicated transcriber.

It is the substance of this book that Harwood has adapted and Schnabel has put on the screen. It was difficult to imagine, given that the book is an interior monologue on his immediate situation and how that situation relates to the rest of his life, how this could be translated to the medium of film, among whose greatest strengths are capturing movement and recording action and reaction. The protagonist in this story is incapable of controlling facial expression - he can't smile or laugh, and when his eye moistens, it is impossible to say - from the outside - whether the cause of the event is emotional or merely physiological.

But Schnabel and Harwood have done a very good job of translating the tale, conveyed in a minmalist, poetic prose in the original. They've captured the tone of the book, of a man hovering between our everyday world and something quite different- among us and one of us, yet immersed in a world of experience outside our own and looking back at us - through imagery, narrative and interaction. Schnabel takes the time to allow the audience to feel not just the frustration and terror of Bauby's situation, but also his release from the world of quotidian human concerns and focus on much deeper aspects of being.

It would be impossible for the filmmakers to attempt to describe what Bauby's experience is like. They recognize this and wisely don't try.They (like Bauby in his book) keep the story simple and straightforward, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions from what they witness. This proves to be a successful strategy, engaging attention not only to follow the wide swings of Bauby's attention - from the painstaking reality of trying to communicate in the outer-world to the liberating awareness of the power of his own memory and imagination in the inner - but also to empathize with the concomitant range of feelings. They counterpose the "reality" of the story with suggestive sequences of images and leave the viewer free to imagine the experience for him or herself. It is in this attempt to put ourselves in Bauby's place and in the world that our imaginations, fired by his words, find there, that engages us in the film.

One could certainly imagine a film about someone in Bauby's circumstances being claustrophobic and depressing - or, at the other extreme, falsely and cloyingly "inspirational" But one thing Schanbel and Harwood have captured from the original book is Bauby's active acceptance of the circumstances in which he finds himself. He refuses to identify either with his own panic and depression, nor with his fantasies of "recovery." It is this sense of Bauby's "compassionate detachment" from the usual expectations and aspirations of human life is at once the catalyst for his release and its liberating outcome.

In Bauby's world, suddenly stripped of everything by which he has defined himself, from his job, his relationships, his worldly success, his physical health, his mobility, to even his voice, the question becomes, what is left? What is this particular person - and by extension, any person - when all the conventional markers we use to identify ourselves are stripped away? Bauby's journey to the center of this question, in which the audience is invited to join, is what makes the story so interesting and provocative.

The idea of the film is grounded and given dimensionality by an outstanding cast. American audiences - except those who regularly attend French films - will not recognize any of them, except perhaps Bergman stalwart Max von Sydow, who has appeared in a number of Hollywood films. Nonetheless, they are all experienced performers, and they work here, together and separately, to create a believable context for Bauby's struggle to come to terms with his changed life.

Von Sydow, as Bauby's father, evokes the slow ebbing of physical power and confidence of aging in a way that provides a dramatic contrast to his son's instantaneous change of circumstances. The flow of sympathy from son to father and later from father to son raises new meanings in the idea that the "child is father to the man."

As Bauby's therapist, who convinces him that communication is worth the effort and gives him the means to make himself understood, Marie-Jose Croze combines professional competence with a humanizing warmth that certainly seems capable of helping lift Bauby out of his self-pity and into the world again. Emmanuelle Seigner, as Bauby's lover, Celine, the mother of their three children, brings the complexity of anger, resentment, pity and the remains of Celine's love and connection to her role that reflect what Bauby was, and in that way illuminate what he is becoming.

Agathe de la Fontaine plays Bauby's latest trophy-girlfriend, Ins, with a blend of helplessness and self-involved narcissism. Her discomfort mirrors Bauby's own self-recriminations when his friend Roussin (a fine cameo by Neils Arestup) comes to visit and - in voice-over - Bauby remembers how he neglected Roussin when the former underwent a similar experience of isolation and dislocation. Patrick Chesnais, as Bauby's doctor, has just the right taint of pomposity and a detachment that makes him unintentionally insensitive and contrasts clearly with the healing emotional investments his caregivers, his family and his transcriber make in him.

Ann Cosigny as the transcriber, Claude, sent out by his publisher to take down his promised book - one letter at a time - becomes another mirror reflecting how engaging Bauby is, in spite of (or perhaps in some way because of) being incapable of all the little signals humans send to try to communicate our personalities and intentions to one another.

Mathieu Amalric does a fine job with the difficult role of Bauby - a man whose emotional self-expression is limited to blinking and moving of his one good eye. But in flashback sequences of Bauby's life before the stroke, he is able to establish in a few deft strokes the bold outlines of the man he was. Because of the way the story is told, his performance is more that of a "supporting actor" in what is really an ensemble piece rather than a "star turn." But that notwithstanding, it is on the strength of his characterization, his ability to establish Bauby as sympathetic in spite of his faults, that audience investment in the story rests. Particularly in his handling of the voice-over dialogue, he shows us Bauby's humor, his sense of irony, and the confused but powerful longing for emotional connection that confirms his appeal.

The production is minimal, but what there is, is effectively used. Except for a few flashbacks, the film is confined to a single location: the hospital overlooking the sea in which the real Bauby was confined and its environs. The "dream images" from the montages are kept simple and accessible. The camera-work is good. Early reliance on the device of filming from Bauby's point-of-view has mixed results - effective as he first wakes up to his predicament, but less so in a contrived sequence when his non-functional right eye has its lid sewn closed. Overall the balance of shots between the claustrophobic perspective of Bauby's limited range of vision, expansive shots of the French coast, the sea and hospital grounds, and the movement-oriented montages of the flashback sequences, works well to give a sense of the extremity of the change in his life.

The "imaginary" sequences are handled with delicacy, made distinct from the "real" action, but not loaded down with unnecessary effects. Schnabel's painterly respect for the power of the image itself (and the observer's imagination acting on it) serves him well here. The image of the man isolated, floating in the deep-sea diving suit is not over-dramatized nor romanticized. It is simply presented as an image. Schanbel gives viewers visual "information" rather than trying to force "meaning," letting us make of the image what we will.

The soundtrack is likewise simple and appropriate. A vintage recording of the wildly popular tune "La Mer" (a hit in the US in a much more upbeat cover version by Bobby Darren) which frames the film, will certainly have more resonance for French viewers, but this cool. lilting, slightly-melancholy rendition sets a tone that is well-balanced with the arc of the film.

Schnabel and his collaborators have made a very fine film here - one which is deservedly being mentioned as an Academy Award favorite. It misses some of the power of the original book - which had the advantage of being able to involve readers even more deeply and imaginatively in Bauby's own point of view - but it is a very fine piece of work which should be high on any list of the best films of the last twelve months.

That's my take on it. What's yours?