In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, prominent French author and editor of French fashion magazine Elle, suffered a brain stroke at the height of his wealth. Waking up from a lengthy coma, a neurologist told him he was afflicted by a rare, incurable condition called “locked-in syndrome.
Bauby retained his eyesight and hearing, his brain functioned normally, but he was completely paralyzed and lost his speech. He was only 43.
His right eye was sewn for fear of infection, and Bauby had only his left eye to communicate with. Miraculously, two years later he managed to write his acclaimed bestselling memoir “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking his eye.
Bauby died 10 days after the book’s release.
A decade later, American artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel adapted Bauby’s book into a deeply moving and life-affirming film about a valiant man who lived an eventful life until the very last moment.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the opening film of the latest edition of the Euro-Arab Cinema, held at the Artistic Creativity Center in Alexandria and the French Center for Culture and Cooperation.
The film opens as Jean-Do (Mathieu Amalric, James Bond’s latest adversary in the upcoming “Quantum of Solace ) wakes up from a coma and finds himself in a hospital, not knowing where he is and unable to remember what happened.
The physician asks him a few questions, he responds but the doctors can’t seem to hear him. The neurologist quickly breaks the news and informs him about his condition.
Henriette (divine Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze from “Munich and “Tell No One ), a speech therapist, is assigned to assist him to communicate. Reciting the alphabet in order of the most frequently used letters, she stops when he blinks and begins to piece the words together.
At first, he’s impatient, deeming the whole exercise a pointless endeavor.
His first words are “I want to die, and he initially dismisses treatment.
Gradually, he starts to cope with his state.
Prior to the stroke, Jean-Do was planning to write a modern adaptation of his favorite novel “The Count of Monte Cristo with a female protagonist.
He contacts his publisher through Henriette and tells her he has a new project in mind.
His publisher sends amanuensis Claude (Anne Consigny) who helps him write the book.
The first part of the film is charted entirely from the point of view of Jean-Do. Characters and objects are seen through a hazy lens, reflecting the immediate distorting aftereffect of the comma on his sight. Vision is quite constrained, limited to his static eye-level.
Because of his torturous motionless state, his attention becomes focused on the minutest of things. A fly perching on his nose, his son wiping off a line of saliva dripping uncontrollably from his tilted mouth or a janitor turning off a football game he’s following. It is in these small details that his helplessness and frustration are best demonstrated.
Only through his dreams, memories and wit does he find liberation and serenity. Throughout the film, Jean-Do compares himself to a prisoner trapped in a diving bell; his transformation into a free flying butterfly is accomplished only when he starts to accept his reality.
“Diving Bell is no melodrama or disease-of-the-week TV special. Schnabel doesn’t attempt to portray Jean-Do as a saintly figure nor does he create a redemptive route for the protagonist to reach.
On the contrary, Jean-Do is a man of many flaws. Prior to his paralysis, he broke up with his ex-partner and the mother of his son and daughter Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner) to consummate an affair. Even after his stroke, he continues to lust after many things: women, food and life in general. When the doctors introduce him to Henriette and his nurse, he stares at their cleavage and says “I must be in heaven.
Through a few non-linear snapshots, we’re shown glimpses of the glamorous life he once led. Most flashbacks though involve his former mistress Joséphine (Marina Hands from “Lady Chatterley ) whom he abandoned while on a religious pilgrimage. He also frequently remembers his children and the last encounter with his father (great Swedish actor Max von Sydow).
While he does have some regrets – such as wishing he could have spent more time with his kids – he doesn’t seem to be apologetic about his life or himself. The unrelenting, unconditional love and support of Céline, Henriette, his friends and Claude, who starts to fall in love with him, proves that his life might not have been a waste after all. This is how a film about such a grim subject matter becomes a joyful, sometimes comical, celebration of life.
Schnabel doesn’t force his viewer to pity Jean-Do. In fact, you’ll probably end up envying him for the life he lived. Several juxtapositions are used to contrast his past life with his post-stroke state, but not for sentimental value.
In fact, even the most tearful moments of the film, such as the gut-wrenching telephone conversation with his father, are not used for emotional exploitation.
After all, there’s nothing sentimental or romantic about illness, especially paralysis or death. These scenes unfold to highlight the film’s main theme: the power of imagination.
Schnabel’s camera, lit by Steven Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, soars to different locations and eras, to a sensational world of sensual beauty. Jean-Do’s world might not be different from ours. Because of his condition though, the way he regards and experiences life is worlds apart from our limited, mundane perspective.
I always pondered the essence of nostalgia, asking why we always long for the past and drown in memories? Reality, no matter how rapturous and exhilarating it might be, can never measure up to our expectations or the boundless power of our imagination.
Jean-Do’s heroism doesn’t lie in his perseverance to write a book under such circumstances. What renders Jean-Do such an exceptional man is his aptitude and strength to break away from reality, take a flight of fantasy and recognize how fortunate he was to lead such a life.
In his aforementioned conversation with his 92-year-old father, we realize how the two, despite the age difference, have reached the same inevitable conclusion. Like his son, Jean-Do’s father is a crippled, bedridden man, waiting for death while watching a long, fragmented film of memories, successes and failures, always wondering what could’ve been.
It’s the same stop everyone reaches sooner or later. At the end though, it all boils down to that long film we are bound to watch until the closing credits.
For Jean-Do, it was one hell of a film. It wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely worth every damn minute.
Catch “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tomorrow at the Artistic Creativity Center in Alexandria. For more information, call 012 783 6712.