Jean-Dominique Bauby, Jean-Do to his loved ones, was an editor for the Parisian branch of Elle magazine before he suffered a stroke at 43 and became completely paralyzed save one eye. A playboy of sorts, he was also a great father, an irresponsible husband, and an excellent writer. Suffering from locked-in syndrome and communicating via a visual alphabet, Bauby dictated his abstract yet wholly absorbing account of his days trapped inside his own body, which he equates with living in a diving bell. His account became an autobiography of sorts and was published two days before he succumbed to heart failure.
Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly takes its title from said book, and, like its source material, the film has a spiffy discordance to it. When Bauby (the great Mathieu Amalric) opens his eyes, so does the camera, and we are struck by the light in the same petrified and blurry way that Bauby is. Manipulated to Brakhage-like lengths, the image has the same effect as Jean-Do's fumbling voiceover; we are as unsure of his footing as he is. His pleading to not sew up an eye threatened by infection becomes our begging; we don't want to lose the slight view we have. Then, with little preparation, we aren't with the protagonist anymore, and we are looking at a frozen, terminally-twitched face in a hospital bed.
Henceforth, shifts from the realities of his restrained state to the fantastic remembrances of a life-once-lived in playboy abandon and back create a surprisingly fluid whole. Bauby, a lady's man like no other, amuses himself with the thoughts of his various female rehabilitators and therapists of all shapes and sizes. In a wondrous scene, the man sits at a fancy restaurant with his interlocutor (the radiant Anne Consigny) and pigs out on iced oysters, oversized langoustines, and a dozen other plates of seafood, pausing at moments to make out. These are his flights of fancy to the life he used to lead and would still be living if not for that fateful day; this is the ever-impressive butterfly of memory.
The memories he conjures up, most of them about past lovers or moments with his father (a terrific and touching Max Von Sydow), are colored like fantasies yet are things that Bauby actually experienced. Moments of real fantasy congeal, notably when Bauby fantasized about his hospital's patron saint, but vivid moments such as a naked lover (Marina Hands) painted in red neon bulbs and the walk down an island street to gaze at religious statues and artifacts cause sublime tremors of heartache.
Butterfly colors inside the lines but it does so with a dandy sense of personal rhythm. The publishing of the book and Jean-Do's death are dealt with hastily, but his time at the hospital and the procedure of mastering a special alphabet are handled with confidence and a careful hand. Schnabel's filmmaking has become substantially more audacious, introducing bewildering moments of hesitant avant-gardism into his palette with immersive pliancy. A famed troublemaker and loudmouth, Schnabel's style here seems fittingly restrained with a respectful glint of melancholy.
Schnabel has made it his business to create biopics that allow for visual flair rather than narrative sweep: An audacious black artist in Basquiat, a man-hungry Latin poet in Before Night Falls. Most surprising is how discreetly Schnabel shoots the moments of flagrant melodrama, including visits from his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) and kids, a phone call from his father, and the clipped communications with the woman he left his family for. Are these moments sad? Darn tootin', but they are not manipulative in any way. The weight of Bauby's departure from these people's daily lives is felt but not prematurely mourned. Schnabel, an artist of many trades, is assured in the fact that Bauby, an artist in his own way, would have never stood for sappiness. It takes one to know one, I suppose.
Aka Le Scaphandre et le papillon.
Great, a book. Just what I needed.