While most disease-themed melodramas give in to the far too easy route of eliciting sympathy for the ailment-afflicted protagonist by enshrouding the unfortunate human being in stereotypical saintly victimhood, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon), like its mysterious, symbolically laden title, has something far more meaningful and complex in mind. Though directed by US artist and occasional filmmaker Julian Schnabel (who also helmed Basquiat, touching on the tragic life of the Haitian-American artist) and adapted for the screen by South African born screenwriter Ron Harwood (The Pianist), the film has a distinctly flavored authentic aura as a French language production.
This elaborately experimental yet deeply personal and affecting biopic delves into the horrific destiny and triumphant creative, if not physical struggle of French celebrity Elle editor Jean-Dominque Bauby. In 1995 at the age of only forty-three, the Parisian bon vivant father of two suffered a massive stroke which left him completely paralyzed with locked-in syndrome. Save for his mental functions conveyed as inner monologues, and the furiously blinking eye of this ill-fated ravaged cyclops. Which was his sole remaining means of communicating with the rest of the world at the French coast naval hospital where he was confined. And in an utterly astonishing truth is stranger than fiction development, Jean-Bo, as he was affectionately known, wrote the entire memoir on which this film is based, letter for letter in literally the blink of an eye. And though he lived to see Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon published in 1977, Jean-Bo died only a few days later following a bout with pneumonia.
Just as in his previous normally functioning life when he had exhibited such an extraordinary will to succeed and surmount any challenge, Jean-Bo (Mathieu Amalric, in a wrenching, remarkably restrained implosive turn as the stricken writer) faces his predicament head on, and without ever allowing it to crush his imprisoned, yet never less than fiery spirit. Schnabel, commanding a miraculous feat in his own right, films the story entirely from Jean-Bo’s point of view, even visually, as beholds a now nearly hallucinatory world and its human beings with his one determined good eye. There’s excruciating frustration and despondency, but also moments of charm and wit that serve as antidotes to doom, as when Jean-Bo does battle with a fly that lands on his nose, or sustains his sanity by embracing private moments of fantasy, re-imagining himself as a handsome and devilish incarnation of Marlon Brando.
And Schnabel consistently refuses to settle just for the overwhelmingly sympathetic circumstances surrounding this thwarted life. He insists that audiences retain a sense of this tragic figure as a complete human being, who has dragged with him whatever flaws, foibles and, yes, cruelty and selfishness he’s inflicted upon those around him in life, to the other side of this nightmare abyss. That includes the betrayal of his still very loyal wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) and young children when he runs off on a whim to live with an alluring young supermodel (Agathe de la Fontaine), and a man he never bothered reconnecting with, who took his seat on a plane once, that landed him in hostage captivity in Lebanon for years. There’s also a touching friendship with a colleague (Isaach De Bankole), and a tenderly awkward bond with his aging father (Max von Sydow) that’s never resolved.
The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is a difficult and unsettling but uniquely inspirational film experience. Julian Schnabel succeeds in capturing this severely contained, unimaginable life among a solemn “battalion of cripples,’ as an entire universe resonating with imagination, emotion and exquisitely reawakened and relived memory.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
3 1/2 stars
DVD Features: Audio Commentary: Julian Schnabel, Director;
Featurettes: Submerged – A Look Inside The Diving Bell And The Butterfly; A Cinematic Vision; Interview: Charlie Rose Interview with Julian Schnabel.