“I’ve decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed. My imagination and my memory. They’re the only two ways I can escape from my diving bell.”
Imagine being completely paralyzed aside from one eye, yet you’re completely aware, your brain fully functional. Follow this imaginary tangent and imagine that a form of communication has been developed for you using the alphabet and specifically placed blinks in order to demarcate one letter at a time. This is the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby. He was able to communicate, one blink at a time, in order to write his memoir, the very work upon which this film is based.
After re-watching Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in preparation for this piece I found myself at a loss for words. Upon reflection I remembered feeling the exact same way after my first viewing; it’s hard to imagine that such a seemly direct story could hold such power. In this film, as well as the memoir of the same name it’s based on, we get the chance to live Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life for a spell. While the subject matter does surround a man who has gone through a massive stroke and suffers from locked-in syndrome, the film is not an entirely melancholic affair. Schnabel’s glorious visual realization of the memoir is truly an imaginative journey into an intriguing life filled with moments of wonder, frustration, melancholy (of course), tenderness, and a lively amount of sarcastic wit. With the use of cinematic technique and imaginative style the film sweeps the viewer through life in Bauby’s “diving bell.”
The reason it’s difficult to find the words to describe this film is its visual nature; words just can’t describe the sway of its images. Much of the power of this film lies in the ways that Schnabel has chosen to convey this extraordinary memoir and the gorgeous images shot by Janusz Kaminski. For the majority of the film the camera lens truly becomes Bauby’s eye, it’s blurry when he first wakes up, images distort when his eye is strained, and everything in frame is immersed in water when he tears up. We even watch from his perspective, as one of his eyes is sewn shut to prevent ocular sepsis. In conjunction with this technique we are also provided his inner monologue as well as a front row seat, and/or his perspective shots, during a variety of flashbacks and imaginary dream sequences. Sometimes we even get a metaphorical look at how Bauby feels, stranded on a dead end pier in the middle of the water or screaming inside a lifeless diving suit. All of this comes together to truly place the viewer in his mind, not as merely a voyeur alongside the author.
In addition to the way the story was told, the acting throughout the film is subtle and spot on. Mathieu Amalric is perfect both as the locked-in Bauby and the lively figure in memory. The entire supporting cast was spot on; Max Von Sydow even graced the screen as Jean-Dominique’s beloved, yet somewhat senile father. With every actor and actress the key seemed to be subtlety, even when the action expressed was exuberant, the true meaning is found between the lines. The fragile nature of life seemed to be a vine throughout the film.
The bottom line is that this immersive film vividly brings to life an extremely interesting story. The subject matter could very easily have turned fodder for a cheap tear-jerker in the hands of a less capable director, but Schnabel, who’s helmed two other artist’s biopics, Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000), brings the film to life. In place of scenes specifically placed to pull at heartstrings we get a more realistic set of acts strung together to give us both a look into Bauby’s life and his experience with locked-in syndrome. It could easily be an all too sentimental film, however the film created is beautiful, whimsical and reflective.
- Edward Hill