In Catch-22 Joseph Heller introduces us with considerable approbation to a cynical man whose ambition is to live a very long time and die in his sleep. After watching too many family members and friends suffer incapacitation at the end of their lives, I identify with that sentiment today in a way I didn't when I first read the novel in my early 20s. Though we all routinely deal with the inevitability of death in whispers and averted glances, those of us who have watched at close hand the suffering of those we love must surely wish the end of our days to come with merciful swiftness. Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the story of a man who was not so 'fortunate." Adapted for the screen by Ronald Harwood from the memoir by former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the story of Bauby's life before and after a stroke at age 42. A wealthy, influential and dashing man, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) has lived his life in the fast lane of privilege and luxury. He's not a bad guy, we are led to believe. He is close to his aged parents who are forthrightly proud of his accomplishments. He adores his three children. But he has not been so good to the women in his life. He never married Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his children, and wasn't faithful to her even while they were together. That she remains devoted to him through the horrible aftermath of his stroke is an instance of unqualified loving, and it's never clear that Jean-Do, as he's known, ever entirely appreciates it.
Jean-Do never regains control over any part of his body save his left eye. Thus, he suffers from locked-in syndrome. His brain function is close to normal. He has the full range of thought processes and emotional responses. He still finds some things funny, but he can't laugh. Though his field of vision is restricted because he can't move his head, he can see and thus perceive the world around him. And he can hear. But he can't speak. He can answer direct questions by blinking once for yes and twice for no.
What finally liberates Jean-Do from the prison of incapacity that he compares to being locked inside a diving bell, is the amazing kindness and stubborn patience of Henriette Durand (Marie-Josée Croze), one of his speech therapists. Henriette facilitates Jean-Do's ability to communicate by reading him the alphabet until he blinks on letters to spell out words and sentences. The process is exhaustingly laborious, and the first thing Jean-Do spells out is that he wishes to die. I certainly found such a sentiment perfectly reasonable, but Henriette scolds him for it and insists that Jean-Do commit himself to communication. When he does so, he compares the experience with the emergence of a butterfly from the confinement of his cocoon. To take the blinking dictation of Jean-Do's manuscript, his publisher hires Claude Mendibil (Anne Cosigny) still another young woman of astonishing compassion.
Schnabel films much of The Diving Bell and the Butterly from Jean-Do's restricted and sometimes clouded point of view as people hover right in his face so that he might see them. The visual effect is uncomfortably claustrophobic, which, of course, is precisely what the director intends. Much of the 'action" in the film consists of Bauby's three beautiful women, Celine, Henriette and Claude, endlessly spelling out the alphabet so that he can gradually blink out the words of his communication. The narrative effect is almost numbing, which, again, is Schnabel's intent. In these two powerful ways the filmmaker makes us see and feel what Bauby's paralyzed life is like and therefore enables us to perceive and appreciate the remarkable achievement of a man in his situation exercising the force of will to write a book.
Bauby's memoir provides us glimpses of his grand life before the stroke and is honest about his frustrations afterward. Always a man intoxicated by beautiful women, Bauby continues to let his good eye roam to the legs and breasts of the women who attend to him. The film doesn't push this point unduly, but we understand that his inability to function has not dimmed his desire. Bauby also extols the sanctuary a man, even an incapacitated man, can find in memory and imagination. He recalls cherished moments, and he imagines future situations, often romantic, that will never occur. One can't help but admire such sentiments. But I wonder if others will nonetheless share my response that it was in death, not in so diminished a life that Jean-Dominique Bauby found the butterfly's release.
- Claude (Anne Cosigny) transcribed the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) after he was severely incapacitated by a stroke.