In creating his masterpiece, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, director Julian Schnabel has said that he specifically made the film in French because of the way women sound when reciting the alphabet, which they must do often in the film as the only way the main character can communicate his own thoughts is by painstakingly blinking every time they hit a letter he needs.
Based on the book by former French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is so utterly dazzling and poetic it almost transcends the genre of film to become something else entirely. It is an homage to all that it means to be alive, not just in our own grooves, living out our days in quiet desperation, but no, this is the water, the flesh, the scents – all the ways we live that isn’t in our own heads.
In real life, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) had a stroke that left him unable to move everything in his body except his eyelid. He can see and he can hear but he can’t speak. He had a book deal to complete and rather than shutting down and doing nothing, he spent the last years of years of his life working with interpreters who helped him to find the word from the letters, the sentence from the words, and the story from the sentences. It took around 200,000 blinks to complete the book, and each word took around two minutes. The alphabet given is in order of most commonly used letters and the way the actresses read them is key to understanding Bauby’s daily life.
It is especially poignant when he is overcome by emotion and has so much to say and then a woman will start reciting “a, b, c…” If they aren’t paying attention to him to catch his blink, they must start again.
The first part of the film is through Bauby’s eyes, or eye as it later becomes. So many concerned faces planting themselves before him, trying to reach him, sometimes ignoring him, but always out of reach. He is trapped by what the doctors call “locked-in syndrome.” By the end of the film we realize that not only is he locked in but the world is locked out. And what a world it suddenly is.
What Schnabel does so beautifully is to display life in all of its sensual glory; a woman’s thigh laid bare from her silky dress that he can’t reach out and touch, lips that are inches away that he can’t kiss, the wetness of the sea, the salty deliciousness of food and wine. In one breathtaking shot, we watch Bauby recall his last love as seen from behind as the two drive the countryside. It is the back of her head and her hair flies out like fir – a spidery silhouette – from her scalp and U2’s “Ultraviolet” blaring from the stereo. It is such a great depiction of how we ache for those moments with our long lost loves, and it’s especially meaningful to this man, who is now unable to do anything but sit and stare out of one eye.
The snapshots in our mind’s eye are not just images, they are sensual recreations of experiences. He doesn’t just see his old love; he smells her, he tastes her, he remembers how her skin felt. And though he clearly obsesses on the lover who has abandoned him since he became paralyzed, he also shows that the true pain of his position is not being about to cuddle and smooch his darling children, who will now grow up without him.
Despite the somber theme, the film’s subject sees the absurdity of it all and jokes to himself for amusement, especially when he just wants to watch the soccer match and people keep turning off the television. Shortly after he finished his book, Bauby died. Death, for once, was the rescuer, for this man clearly did not feel comfortable living this way, even if he was lucky to be alive.
There isn’t a bad performance in Schnabel’s film, but the women who care for Bauby, and especially Emmanuelle Seigner as his long-suffering wife, are exceptional. She has shed most of her anger for her cheating husband, but it’s clear that she still feels wounded by the selfish way he led his life. Seigner, who must act many of her scenes to a camera lens, wears so many shades of emotion on her finely boned face.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is really about appreciating the things in life that come so easily and aren’t valued enough. Bauby felt so strongly about getting his thoughts out that he endured blinking them out one letter at a time. That makes his message, and the film, able to convey only the absolute essentials; there is no time nor room for complaints, especially from those of us who have it all.