The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is undoubtedly a movie about power and will. It tells the true story of Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the editor-in-chief of the Elle magazine, who one day is victim of a sudden and extremly powerful stroke which causes the “locked-in syndrome”. This disease is the incarnation of one of my darkest and thrilling fears: having a fully-active mind in a completely paralysed body. It is like being trapped into a maze with no way out.
But this motion-picture, although this would have been something realy easy to achieve, is not meant to enfrighten us and to make us leave the cinema with a bad taste in our mouths. Instead of this, it reveals how Jean-Do fights with the physical limitations of his body and, with the aid of a speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze), he astonishingly succeeds in writing a book. The method they will adopt consists in re-arranging the alphabet in the order of the most fre quently used letter, and he will choose a letter by blinking his left eye. Finally, after a few months of distress, Jean-Do finishes to dictate his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was published shortly before he died.
During the movie, Jean-Do’s relationship with his friends and relatives changes. Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), mother of his three children, stays by his side despite of their previous divorce. In addition to this, she accepts to translate a discussion between him and his mistress. Apart from this uncomfortable situation, the most impressive sequence is when Jean-Do “talks” with his father (Max von Sydow), who is also “trapped” in his apartment because of his own poor health. This scene is simply heart-breaking, because it shows the weakness of two men who once loved life and now are incapable of enjoying this gift from God.
Filming this superhuman feat is not an easy thing to do, and nobody could have done this job better than Julian Schnabel, the painter-turned-director whose previous cinematographic work consists in two films about a New York graffiti artist (“Basquiat”) and the Cuban poet Reynaldo Arenas (“Before Nights Falls”). From the very beginning, Schnabel, with the aid of acclaimed cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky, decides to use a subjective camera which offers a first-person experience. Psychologically, this causes a greater impact than showing everything from the “outside”, althought sometimes it might end up by giving shivers.
After roughly the half-hour mark, the director begins to use some traditional third- person shoots. These are utilized to introduce Jean-Do’s visitors and to show his real situation, as seen through the eyes of his friends. The combination of these two different points of view is the best way to make a portrayal of the painful situation he is constantly living; it’s like showing a candy to a child and pushing him away from it.
The lead performance by Mathieu Amalric exists in two ways: as the paralysed man moving only his left eyebrow, and as the charismatic editor. His talent as an actor is simply outstanding, and the performance in this movie defines the word “extraordinary”. Also, Julian Schnabel does not lionize Amalric’s character; Jean-Do was no saint before, and he is no saint after suffering from the stroke. But all in all, our imperfect character is what makes us humans.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not a movie. It’s a poem. It’s a symphony of music and images, a tribute to our inner beauty. It shows us that human life is priceless and health is the biggest gift we’ll ever get. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a motion-picture that tries to tell us that the word “impossible” should be deleted from the dictionary.