THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY by Julian Schnabel

The Diving bell and the Butterfly poster


I saw this film in Singapore last week, but just before I entered the cinema, I went to buy Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir, 'Le Scaphandre et le Papillon' that this film was based on. The book is thin, so it could actually be finished in one sitting (I read sporadically, so it took me two days)

The book was written after Bauby, a former 'Elle' magazine editor, suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed from head to toe, save for his left eye, and he wrote the book by communicating with the blinking of his eye. An amanuensis repeatedly recited a frequency-ordered alphabet (E, L, A, O, I, N, S, D ...), until Bauby blinked to choose the next letter. He died in 1997 just a few days after the book was published.



After reading the book, I felt that the film feels more like a visual companion of Bauby's memoir, than an actual adaptation. While the film has many things that were chronicled in the book, I was surprised to see how certain characters, people in Bauby's lives that were mentioned only passingly in a single sentence of the memoir, were expanded upon. It made me wonder whether director Julian Schnabel (who won a Best Director award at last year's Cannes Film Fest and scored a Best Director nomination at this year's Oscars) was taking creative liberties, or he actually went off to do additional research on those people and events that never got mentioned in the memoir.

Long ago, Justin had shown me an interview with an (supposedly) avant-garde filmmaker called Jonathan Weiss who condemned many contemporary narrative films for being nothing more than 'filmed theater', a sentiment that Justin shared. The possibilities of film, a visual medium, have been stagnated, where mise-en-scene (a term I've seemed to be using rather often lately, as if its concept were a fresh revelation to me, gotta thank Ming Jin the mentor for that, haha) is overlooked in favour of formulaic presentations of narrative films that viewers are more comfortable with.

Yet it doesn't mean that filmmakers aren't experimenting now, or that audiences are incapable of accepting something new or different. As overpraised as I thought Cloverfield was, I definitely liked the originality of its presentation by showing a monster film via the POV of a video camera carried by one of the characters in the film, it brings you closer to the experience, and yes, watching the film becomes an 'experience'. Reactions towards the film have been divisive, of course, but nonetheless, it's still great to try something different for the mainstream audiences.

In my Cloverfield review, I mentioned my sudden urge to watch The Diving Bell and the Butterfly because I knew the film was mostly told in first-person perspective. Where viewers got to see everything through the paralyzed Bauby's (played by Mathieu Amalric, who is going to be the villain in the new Bond film, Quantum of Solace) left eye. By showing what he sees, we also see images becoming black momentarily when he blinked. Therefore, at the beginning of the film, I could feel the helplessness of Bauby's immobile state and understood his desperation and brief bout of self-pity much better than if the film was presented conventionally via third-person perspective.

Sebastian had asked me about the film: "Don't you feel bored and tedious at certain stretches of the film when people interacting with Bauby had to go through the 'E, L, A, O, I, N, S, D' list and wait for him to blink, and then to form a word from each letter just to know what he wants to say?"

I didn't, I merely felt the boredom and tedium that the protagonist was feeling when he was communicating, and thought what a bummer it would've been if I had to communicate like that too (touch wood!). Perhaps I was too engrossed in the film to really feel bored.

On the other hand, Bauby's witty inner monologue can still be heard and his situation didn't do much to dim his wry sense of humour (most of the time anyway). He laments the unfairness of life when the hospital staff assigned to help him were all pretty women, or screams in sheer horror when an inconsiderate staff member switched off the television during the halftime of a football game, or laughs in amusement when telephone installers made insensitive jokes about him, or derisively labeling his estranged wife as 'the mother of his children'.

He envisioned himself as a diving bell, trapped in an ocean, but fortunately for him, his brain can still soar through his memories and imaginations. Like a butterfly. And most of these moments are visually poetic and beautiful, with images that stay with me even though it's been more than a week since I saw the film. Being an actual artist himself, director Julian Schnabel, with the help of famed cinematographer Janusz Kaminskin (he's been shooting every single Spielberg film since Schindler's List) created lots of wonders with the visuals.

Celebrating his first Father's Day with his children and feeling the guilt of not being able to hug them, where his memory of that day is defined by a brief moment when his son wipes off saliva from his chin.

Theophile dabs with a Kleenex at the thread of saliva escaping my closed lips. His movements are tentative, at once tender and fearful, as if he were dealing with an unpredictable animal. As soon as we slow down, Celeste cradles my head in her bare arms, covers my forehead with noisy kisses and says over and over, 'You're my dad, you're my dad,' as if in incantation.

Today is Father's Day. Until my stroke we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calender. But this time we spent the whole of the symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad. I am torn between joy at seeing them living, moving, laughing or crying for a few hours, and fear that the sight of all these sufferings - beginning with mine - is not the ideal entertainment for a boy of ten and his eight-year-old sister. However, we have made the wise collective decision not to sugarcoat anything.


Or a heartbreaking phone conversation with his aged father who comforts him by saying that they are both prisoners.

I cannot quit my seaside confinement. And he can no longer descend the magnificent staircase of his apartment building on his ninety-two-year-old legs. We are both locked-in cases, each in his own way: myself in my carcass, my father in his fourth-floor apartment.


And the movie depicts Bauby's attempts to write his memoir with a patient assistant. Going through each letter with a blink, letters became words, words became sentences, and sentences became paragraphs of the book, and obviously, excerpts of his memoir were used as voiceovers in the film, and it helped a lot that Bauby was a fine writer himself (he didn't become Elle magazine editor for nothing), so the beauty of his prose when the first few sentences of the book were finally heard in the film surprised me a lot, and I just couldn't help but smile when watching the film.

Julian Schnabel was pressured by the production company to make the film in English (he's American), but believing that the rich language of the book wouldn't work as well in English (the English-translated excerpts I quoted above would really have sounded weird they were really being spoken out), so he went to learn French and make the film in French instead. Good move!

Interestingly, Johnny Depp had originally been set to play the lead character, Jean-Dominique Bauby, but he dropped from the project due to scheduling conflicts with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. (he lives in France, the mother of Depp's children is French, so I assume he can speak French...) But I'm fine with Mathieu Amalric's great performance here.

Anyway, I highly recommend this film, and I'll end this post by quoting Cinematical's review of the film.

Schnabel's visual sense is exquisite and brilliant, whether in a first-person view of Jean-Do having his left eyelid sewn shut to protect it or a later sequence where Jean-Do walks the streets of Lourdes amid bright signs proclaiming the availability of healing waters; the sacred and the profane, glowing holy like a neon bible. The cutting and intercutting is masterful; the sense of space and place profound; the inventions work in service to the story, and never overshadowing it or used as a rickety ramp in the absence of narrative. Jean-Do can't move, and yet he's on the greatest journey of his life -- and Schnabel conveys this perfectly, without hyperbole or sentiment, but always with power and real feeling. I'm rarely moved by so-called 'inspirational' films -- often they're syrupy and cheap -- but I found myself on the edge of tears more than a few times during The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, not thinking of Jean-Do but of myself: What were my own reasons for not living? What were my reasons for not loving? And what could I possibly have to overcome that measured up to what Beauby faced? The Diving Bell and The Butterfly may be avant-garde and bold, but it's also plain-spoken and real -- a movie well worth seeing, with images and lessons that strike with power and don't let go.



Trailer