We’ve never seen anything quite like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and that alone makes it worth our attention. Based on the memoir of Dominique Bauby, a French magazine editor who suffered a massive stroke at 43, the movie employs a bold strategy that forces us to see the world from its protagonists agonized and frightening point of view. That condition, described by Bauby’s intrepid doctors as “locked in” syndrome, left Bauby completely paralyzed save for vision and movement in one eye.
The movie begins with a confused awakening; blurry images and sound from a hospital room; doctors, nurses, and their conflicted and conflicting dialogue on the patient’s condition. Then the patient’s gradual realization that while he thinks he’s talking, he’s unable to say a word. For a while every moment is seen from the agonized view of Bauby’s one functioning eye. A sense of dread, that we’re going to spend the film’s entire running time seeing through one eye, is eventually leavened by a rich series of flashbacks.
Bauby was a talented and chauvinistic editor of Elle. In addition to the gorgeous wife and kids he sported a stunning mistress and a coterie of sycophants. Even in the hospital he’s attended by three wispily beautiful therapists, almost as taken with his reputation and power as his former underlings.
Imprisoned in the “diving bell” of his afflicted body, Bauby is forced to endure a procession of well meaning but helpless friends and lovers, more problematic than helpful. His only relief comes from a determined therapist who contrives a tiny escape hatch for the “butterfly” within.
Director Julian Schnabel, working from Bauby’s memoir and an inspired script by Ronald Harwood, has elected to keep the narrators diffident and unsparing “voice” intact. This is most effective in several unnerving confrontations; between aging father, (Max Von Sydow) and stricken son, dutiful wife and fearful mistress, confused friends and colleagues.
Bauby’s painful struggle to re enter the flow of life is punctuated with flights of fancy that will remind some of the Javier Bardem film “The Sea Within,” from a couple years back. Sardonic humor and an undiminished taste for the pleasures of the female body serve as distractions, reinforcing the character’s refusal to give in to his infirmity.
But the chosen form of storytelling is as problematic as it is problem solving. Because the film begins with Bauby already afflicted we don’t get involved in the ebb and flow his prior life. That life is represented in snippets of recollection; vividly shot, but not quite enough to win our complete sympathy. By eschewing traditional narrative Schnabel and Harwood leave a bit of a vacuum. The movie captures your attention more often than your heart.
I mention this deficit mainly by way of comparison with Schnabel’s last film, the stellar “Before Night Falls,” probably the decade’s best film about the inner life of a writer. The fabric of that story; a gay writer/poet growing up in pre-Castro Cuba, was played against such a sprawling canvas, it’s almost impossible to top. Still, “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” aided by several late occuring revelations, builds to a deeply moving conclusion. Highly recommended. In French, true to its source.
By the way, don’t hesitate to seek “Before Night Falls,” from your chosen video library.