‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ a life-affirming portrait

Ben Raymond

Five minutes before “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was set to begin, a pleasant-looking man – a paraplegic confined to his wheelchair – passed down the aisle with his wife and companions.

Surveying the theater briefly, they selected seats five rows in front of my friend and me. His wife made sure he was comfortable, positioning him so he could see the entire screen.

Appropriate. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is in fact a story about a man who cannot move, cannot speak, cannot live as people are supposed to live.

The film began. The man in the wheelchair, his wife and companions watched with the rest of us. Soon, they would, without knowing it, touch the hearts of every person in the theater.

We shall return to them later.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is the magnum opus of acclaimed artist and director Julian Schnabel, who creates an inspiring cinematic adaptation of a truly remarkable true story.

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) is the editor of Parisian fashion titan ELLE magazine and one of France’s richest and most envied figures. But at the zenith of his life, a massive stroke paralyzes his entire body and throws him into a coma. He is only 43 years old.

Waking nearly three weeks later, he is surrounded by doctors and nurses with lights and needles. Tubes sink out from his chest and neck, hooked to machines.

Try as he might, he cannot speak. Disoriented, terrified and a prisoner in his own body, he sees a doctor thread a needle and bring it to his brow. He watches helplessly as his right eyelid is slowly, slowly sutured shut.

Struck with locked-in syndrome and left only with the use of his left eye, Bauby must learn to communicate with the help of devoted therapist Henriette Durand (Marie-Josée Croze). She teaches him to blink letters of the alphabet for dictation. One blink for “yes,” two for “no” – letter by letter, it is an excruciating process.

His wife Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner) looks at him, able to hide her pity but not her tears. After a few weeks, she brings his children. They play for him on the beach. His oldest son wipes saliva from his face and tells him he loves him.

Bauby loosens himself from self pity and steadily, over the course of many months, is able to write a memoir – one blink, one letter at a time.

Schnabel spoke about the film’s impact, commenting, “I’ve had people, family members of those with locked-in syndrome, tell me how important this film was to them – that it was true to life.”

Schnabel energized as he continued.

“We showed the film at a hospital in Boston for paraplegics and people with LIS, and everyone was so moved,” he said. “Many cried. It was rewarding, you know. I didn’t expect that kind of reaction. It’s wonderful.”

Schnabel looked around the room, gesturing with his arms as if to gather in its contents.

“There are things that are better and bigger than all this sort of stuff,” he said. “All of this is just nonsense.”

Amalric is fantastic as Bauby.

There’s more life in his eyes (or eye) than in most of the performances this year. And the ensemble as a whole matches his quality.

In the film’s most touching scene, Bauby “speaks” by telephone with his father, played by the incomparable Max von Sydow, whose mournfulness is so powerful it makes the scene nearly impossible to watch. Sydow, whose career peaked some 40 years ago under legendary auteur Ingmar Bergman, delivers an unforgettable performance at the age of 78.

Master cinematographer Janusz Kaminksi paints the film with a dazzling palate of color. The film actually glows. Soft white light seeps through curtains; ocean tones ripple along the beach.

The film is absolutely beautiful. Each and every frame is a work of art. Any moment could be captured, framed and hung on a wall. I do not exaggerate.

Schnabel spoke about his gift for painting and its influence on his direction.

“It’s the same as when I am painting,” he said. “Whether I’m behind a brush or behind a camera, I need to create a beautiful image. The two art forms are married like that. They’re different, yes, but I approach each, each different process, with the same end goal in mind.”

No one deserves more praise than Schnabel. He directs with audacity and unmatched artistry. His camera walks and flies, twisting and turning on an impossible axis. It blinks and breathes with Bauby, coexistent, allowing the audience a portal directly into the story. It’s magical.

Schnabel deserves each and every honor he has received. He deserves his Critics Choice and Prix de la mise en scène at the Cannes Film Festival. He deserves his Golden Palm and two César Award nominations. He deserves his DGA, Independent Spirit and BAFTA nominations, too.

He deserves the Academy Award nomination he received last week. And he deserves to win in it. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is not only the best-directed film of the year; it’s one of the best-directed films in recent memory.

Speaking with Julian Schnabel was an honor and an experience I won’t soon forget. Eloquent, engaging and passionate about his craft, he seemed a genuinely good man.

And his film is an inspiration.

I have spent a lot of time disintegrating films, writers, directors and actors. I’ve written tens of thousands of words of sub-analysis and criticism, picking films apart, for better or for worse, as if I have the right to do so. There is no room for that here.

I experienced the film holistically. I was moved by it completely. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” transcends so much in modern cinema. It is a life-affirming portrait of strength born from suffering, redemption born from loss.

I promised to return to the man in the wheelchair.

When the film ended and the credits rolled, the man was visibly moved. His friends were all in tears, his wife sobbing softly into her hands. Cinema’s ability to touch us deeply manifested before me.

I turned to my friend Emily. She, too, was in tears.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is currently playing at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.