catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 4 :: 2008.02.22 — 2008.03.07


The flutter

Unlatch the window, open it, and throw out convention. Do it now. Like it or not, maverick artist Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) will do it for you in his new film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a magnificent film about life’s glories and ill fates. It’s the unflinchingly honest and humbling story of former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, published in 1997, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly introduces us to the man who had his life change in the blink of an eye and then remerged, as though a phoenix, with the very same blink. Crippled by a stroke, Bauby, through the assistance of a therapist and various caretakers, is able to codify a method for dictating his memoir through blinking. Though it may seem like some sort of hyperbolic fantasy, and a cruel one at that, this story is actually a true story that unbinds the human mind from limitation. 

Brought to life in both the nostalgic memories of his mind and his fantasies, we discover the peaks and valleys which beset this man of ambition and pulsating libido and ultimately uncover how his physical subjugation led to his liberation. Every character, from the ironical image of Bauby caring for his father (Max Von Sydow) to his therapist (Marie-Josee Croze) and his loyal wife Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), is highlighted in vivid detail, like a variegated Monet, the beauty of an honest portrait. If anything, the story beckons all—whatever fears might beset us—to set aside our mental captivity. Therein, the cell door to human fear is thrown wide open. The shackles of excuse are hammered off in the face of this remarkable man. One of the clear characteristics both from this film and Schnabel’s body of work is that true art must come face to face with adversity, die and resurrect.

Schnabel, through the lens of the great Janusz Kaminski, orchestrates a brilliant subjective experience while the pen of Roland Harwood gives the story rhythm and diction. Mathieu Amalric as Bauby is a revelation. Schnabel paints Bauby’s charisma with rich pastels and his imprisoned self with more somber and delicate tones. In tackling such a complex and difficult subject, Schnabel emerges brilliant. Preventing both the exaggerative grandeur of the overly ornate and the more subtle sequestering of reality into shadows, Schnabel balances the film visually and psychologically. It’s an intelligent film in which we’re privy to his thoughts and the details of his life, ultimately unlocking the self through the limitless bounds of the imagination.

Whatever we take for granted, whether it be the innocence of play, the cold of snow, or hair blowing in the wind, Bauby’s life, regardless of whatever futile words one might attempt to employ in describing such, is truly a humbling story of unlikely redemption. A balanced film, wherever we go, we circle back to Bauby, and Schnabel’s stillness and chaos resonate steadily like a military cadence until this diving bell, helplessly sinking in the water and inching his way ever closer to oblivion and the dark abyss, hatches and the butterfly of his mind, full of color and life, flutters to the everywhere of his heart’s content.

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