Winner of Best Director at the Festival de Cannes and Best Director at the Golden Globes, this film went on to further success as winner of a BAFTA for Best Adapted Screenplay, another well-deserved award.
A very poignant and unique film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is told from the perspective of a man, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who is the late editor of Elle magazine who died in 1995. He is suffering from locked-in syndrome and has decided to write a memoir of his life. Paralysed entirely, Bauby spends his days in a wheelchair unable to move anything other than one of his eyes, blinking to communicate with his carers. The film combines scenes of Bauby in the hospital interacting with nurses, various family members and friends, with scenes from Bauby’s memory. As the story progresses, the tragic deterioration of the relationship with his father is revealed, with time running out too quickly so they haven’t had a chance to make things right.
Based on a true story, it is difficult to find another film as effective or as memorable in its portrayal of a person living with a disability and the emotional consequences for his family. The film is shot so that the audience see things through Bauby’s perspective; through his one functional eye, often blurred.
Although his sight deteriorates and he is able to make little progress, Bauby does not let his circumstances damage his spirit. His character remains very much alive. The audience are carried on an enchanting journey through Bauby’s imagination, seeing waterfalls and sunsets, flowers and endless fields, and the happiest times spent with his father, wife and children. It is from this idea that the film gets its title; his condition is the diving bell and his imagination is the butterfly. This is visually depicted with several silent sequences of Bauby in a diving suit, trapped underwater and unable to escape, leaving audiences feeling the same sense of entrapment and claustrophobia.
However, he displays remarkable mental strength and resilience. When all those around him are losing hope, he never despairs and he keeps fighting. His mentality is perfectly demonstrated with a very poignant quote from his voiceover, saying “even a fraction of a dad is still a dad”, accompanied by a memory of him spending Father’s Day on the beach watching his children playing. Every detail of this film has been carefully thought out; down to the soundtrack that accompanies the memory sequences, as if it could almost be a dream. The script and the cinematography have been beautifully intertwined to do this very special story justice. The acting throughout is flawless, allowing audiences to quickly become emotionally attached to the characters.
By the end of the film, it is clear that the story is coming to its tragic conclusion and Bauby is going to die. However, it is not before he has dictated his memoir to a writer who vows to ensure it is published. Unlike so many films nowadays, the ending is not a huge dramatic climax, but meets its conclusion slowly and gradually, as if Bauby is drifting into a sleep, finally at peace. Bauby pursues his dream to write a memoir of his life, even when he knows there is little hope of him living much longer; not allowing the doctors discourage him. This strength and endurance is what makes his story so inspiring. Despite its tragic undertones, the film has many amusing moments since Bauby keeps his sense of humour until the end.
All in all, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a deeply moving, thought-provoking, and highly inspirational film. It hasn’t earned the credit it deserves internationally, some audiences being deterred by its French dialogue with English subtitles. However, its subject matter is worthwhile unlike so many of the mainstream stories churned out today, making it one of the best foreign language films in a while, summing up the best things about world cinema as a genre.
There’s not another film like it; watch it if you haven’t already – you won’t regret it!
“Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you’ll survive.”