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Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly opens with a series of blurred images in white and grey. On the soundtrack, Charles Trenet is singing the irresistibly jaunty 'La Mer' with gusto. It's a dark jest, for we are not used to seeing the shapes on the screen accompanied by music of any kind. They are X-rays of bones - vertebrae, femur, patella, spine. The American director Julian Schnabel has made a piece of cinema that looks death in the eye while singing above it, and the opening credits set the tone for the entire film – profound tragedy spiked with a defiant, life-affirming humour.

Schnabel is up for an Oscar for Best Director, but the film's real star is it's source material: the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose glamorous life as editor of French Elle magazine was interrupted by a stroke, leaving him with a rare condition called 'locked-in syndrome'. Aged just 43, Bauby was fully conscious but completely paralyzed. We know this only because in the ensuing months, Bauby began to dictate his entire autobiography by moving his left eyelid, using a painstaking system in which an assistant read out the alphabet and he blinked at the right letter. Each word took around two minutes.

The story of how Bauby achieved this could have been slow, repetitive and saccharine, but the film's triumph is to make his ordeal not only watchable but deeply absorbing. Played with great sensitivity by the French actor Mathieu Amalric, our hero is always sympathetic despite his flaws; through flashbacks we gain a window into a previous life that was sensuous and hectic, with a wife, children, mistress and sports car vying for his time. Such memories offer a welcome counterpoint to the vacuum of life in a hospital bed, and force Bauby – and us – to consider the legacy of our relationships once we no longer have the power to make amends.

But perhaps the film's greatest achievement derives from Schnabel's seeming determination that the audience experience something of the diving-bell-like isolation Bauby described in his book. As he first awakens from his coma, we see a doctor leaning in close and asking him to speak. "What? Can't you hear me?" says Bauby, baffled. Only we, the audience, share that anguish. Indeed, for the first twenty minutes of the film, we see almost exclusively from his fixed perspective; the small hospital room, the nurses who loom in and out of focus, the vase of roses of which he asks, unheard, "Who brought those?"

He never gets an answer, and the donor-less flowers might as well stand for the many incomprehensible things in life, for it is with these that the film is most deeply concerned: loss, betrayal, the obstinacy of love in the face of catastrophe. I cried three separate times in this film, nudged by the shamelessly emotive piano score (try listening to the 'Theme for the Diving Bell & the Butterfly' by Paul Cantelon below). I don't think Schnabel quite deserves the Oscar (that's surely PT Andersons) but the Diving Bell team have framed the huge themes of this film with real wit and vision. In the end though, Jean-Dominique Bauby is the true 'auteur' in this film, and his courage its most compelling device.

1 comment:

Kiran said...

I agree the film gives the audience a real empathy with Bauby and what it must feel like to be 'locked-in'. But I couldn't help but feel that his central relationships were left a little underdeveloped.

I wanted to know more about the context and history to his relationship with his ex-wife, and why he treated her as he did. And what about his mistress? What was their affair like? We only see the end of it, so his undying passion for her when he wakes up jars a little.

One of the points of the film was that despite being locked in, Bauby was still very much there. His former relationships still made him the person he was and still informed the way he behaved even when locked in.

But I didn't feel I understood those relationships, or who Bauby was before the stroke, and so the picture of him post-stroke wasn't entirely complete.

But then, having never read the book, perhaps that's more to do with the source material. After all, Bauby couldn't have written his entire life story. He simply wouldn't have had the energy.