Forty-three year old Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby - Jean-Do to his friends - awakens not knowing where he is. He is in a Berck-sur-Mer hospital, where he has been for the past several weeks in a coma after suffering a massive stroke. Although his cognitive facilities are in tact, he quickly learns that he has what is called locked-in syndrome which has resulted in him being almost completely paralyzed, including not being able to speak. One of his few functioning muscles is his left eye. His physical situation and hospitalization uncomfortably bring together the many people in his life, including: Céline Desmoulins, his ex-lover and mother of his children; Inès, his current lover; and his aged father who he calls Papinou. Among his compassionate recuperative team are his physical therapist Marie, and his speech therapist Henriette. Henriette eventually teaches him to communicate using a system where he spells out words: she reads out the letters of the alphabet in ... Written by
How much do we really communicate? Can you tell me what you're thinking? What you're feeling? Not an approximation, but exactly? To find a common language, a window of trust, and to communicate experience! To see inside the mind of an artist. Or for the artist, ours. If we find that common wavelength, can we dive in? Let the 'butterfly' take flight from its dark chrysalis? The interior world of another. The inscrutable depth of another person's individuality.
The first movie I saw by neo-expressionist painter Julian Schnabel was Before Night Falls. In that film, the artist was trapped in prison, quite literally. Which presented great communication difficulties for him (in giving life to his novel in the world). In this film, we have examples of people trapped or imprisoned in different ways. A man who had been taken hostage in Beirut. An ailing father who has difficulty climbing stairs to and from his apartment. Both are trying to reach out to the main protagonist. Bauby. An amazing and successful socialite who's in his very own 'prison.' Bauby has secured a publishing contract when tragedy hits. A stroke causes 'locked in' syndrome and he reviews his options as an author. The book he writes, and on which this film is based, is the one he is remembered for. I haven't read it. But his powers of expression, glimpsed in the film, make me want to buy it. The book he nearly wrote - a re-write of the Count of Monte Cristo - would probably be pulped. (But I wonder if that was poetic embellishment - Dumas was the first person to describe locked in syndrome in the person of Monsieur Noirtier de Villeforte, a Cristo character).
How many people know of Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle fashion magazine? It doesn't matter. But what does matter is experiencing his ability to discern, his articulate vision of beauty. Not as science, but as an education of the senses (and this is a sensuous and evocative film).
Why is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly so successful? A French language film picking up four Oscar nominations is remarkable. (The American director insisted on authenticity and made it in France and in French.) I suspect the consummate vocabulary of metaphor it uses is partly responsible. It makes the challenge facing Bauby a global one and relevant to everyone's life. None of us communicates perfectly, after all. Words left unsaid, to friends, to lovers, because we didn't find the 'right' words.
The speech therapist who breaks through Bauby's barrier is excellent. Her motivation is, here is a man she respects and admires. It is also the biggest challenge of her career. Bauby's sense of humour, voiced as interior dialogue, is scathing. His lecherous thoughts about the therapist are tempered with good taste and his incorrect jokes about his own condition.
Bauby starts to write his novel and his sense of poetry bursts through. We feel a glimmer of a mental rush associated with artists, explorers and adventurers. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the adventure of life and death. Not in Hollywood terms with big explosions. But with sensitivities, with meanings. It has a 'reach out and touch' quality. A Laughing Buddha whose joke we've missed (but might catch on another occasion). It is the most awesomely beautiful film I have seen for a long while.
Schnabel's thing might be helping us taste something we might otherwise let go unnoticed. In Basquiat, he introduced many people to the artist Basquiat, but also to the revered and misunderstood Warhol. (And if you want to understand someone as weird as Warhol, understanding the contemporaneous and only slightly weird - Basquiat is maybe a good place to start.) Here, his insight is transcendent. The film is a work of art. About a work of art. The use of visual metaphor and an excellent script lets us use Bauby's condition symbolically. Ingenious editing keeps us on the edge of our seat, especially towards the resolution, as we race to work out how a drive in the countryside will end.
The only scene I could find a flaw in was where he shaves his father. The sound of the rasping blade as he shaved his dad troubled me if it was added afterwards I think it was overdone and distracting. But the scene was an emotional building block. And much of our story is told like this, through flashbacks. With his beautiful ex-wife. With his children. With his lover. And with his father. People with whom, like most of us, he still has one or two little unresolved issues. They made me wonder if we make too little effort to communicate when it seems easy to do so.
The film successfully mixes a down-to-earth style, great special effects to see through Bauby's one remaining eye, and jaw-dropping montage. As we observe mundane details of our hero's life falling apart or reaching fulfilment, the camera cuts to ice fields collapsing into the sea or winding back in reverse motion. Or there will be a sudden switch to sensuality as he guzzles wine and oysters in a swank restaurant, feeding and being fed by his lover. Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer for countless Steven Spielberg's, excels, as does Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood.
It should perhaps be noted that the film has not been immune to attempted high-jacks by groups with their own agendas. The Catholic News Service hailed its 'life-affirming qualities' compared to another great film it denigrates, The Sea Inside. Although locked-in state is a rare condition, few individuals experiencing it are likely to have the wealth and resources, public acclaim and reason to live that Bauby had. The situation of Ramon Sanpedro (The Sea Inside) might be a more common one.
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