When a screenwriter approaches a biopic, they can struggle to condense the life, times and spirit of one illuminating person into a three-act story. But, what happens when that biography needs to be expanded from a slim book, told from the perspective of a man who cannot move? What kind of drama can you glean from the material? How do you engage the audience and comprehend his locked-in state? The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the most miraculous films of the 21st century, even more wondrous in film form than as a memoir.
The 140-page book comes from Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor of Elle magazine who suffered a massive stroke at age 43. The book’s conception was something of a miracle. He could not speak or move his hands. Tilting his head was a challenge. His right eye was sown shut, since the muscles in it were not working. So, his only line of communication was blinking with his left eyelid. One blink meant yes, two meant no.
His speech therapist, Henriette (played in the film by Marie-Josée Croze), brought him an alphabet, where the order was how frequently the letters were used in French. When Bauby wanted to speak, Henriette went through that ordered alphabet and he would blink at the letters to spell out a word. Slowly, he began making sentences, then paragraphs, then chapters of his novel. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would come out in March 1997, two days before Bauby died of pneumonia.
Bauby’s novel is a blend of his experience with locked-in syndrome, as well as some memories of his old life, as a young boy, husband and beloved journalist. The chapters are short – few are longer than 1,000 words – but this is appropriate given his physical capacity. However, Bauby is articulate and no mental slouch. His words are grand and descriptive, the metaphors of his inconvenient state colourful and sometimes funny.
The autobiographical remnants are not as fine as his observations at the Breck-sur-mer hospital, though. Reliving these days was a vital tool to energize Bauby, who had to spend the last two years of his life living in his mind. Between his condition cemented to a wheelchair and hospital bed and the flowing flashback memories, Bauby’s memoir also shifts to his dream state. For a man who lived in the fast lane, his paralyzed position gives him the chance to recede into his memory and imagination, which he describes with detail and good humour.
As emotionally resonant as some chapters of the book are, Julian Schnabel’s film adaptation is an even more cathartic experience. The author’s thoughts about his meager condition, which are hard to imagine in the novel, are shown with dazzling innovation from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Almost the entire first 40 minutes of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly come from Bauby’s line of sight (or lack of vision).
When he wakes up in the first scene, the light on the screen flickers black once or twice. The colours blur, the sound is faint. A few scenes later, a doctor stitches his right eye shut. A patch of brown skin is squeezed shut in front of the camera’s eye, collapsing our view of what Bauby can see.
We are locked in with him, but this does not restrict our engagement in his stories. Often, the reality fades into a thought – an early one is a scuba diver trapped inside a massive suit – or majestic dreamscape, like a forest, the ocean, or the back of his ex-wife’s hair dancing in the wind as she sits in his convertible. “Two things aren’t paralyzed,” he says through voice-over. “My imagination and my memory.”
He is like the butterfly of the title, trapped in a cocoon but able to imagine his escape into a vibrant, sunny, liberating world. Schnabel fills his dismal reality with fantastical metaphors, like the man sinking in a scuba suit or Bauby marooned on his wheelchair on a dock in the middle of the sea.
Bauby’s memoir has almost no dialogue and comes entirely from his perspective. Novel-to-film adaptations from the first-person perspective can have a hard time figuring out how much of the character’s voice to transfer directly to the script through voice-over. With The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, screenwriter Ronald Harwood (an Oscar winner for The Pianist) adds a wry voice to reflect Bauby’s conscience.
French actor Mathieu Amalric has a self-deprecating voice, aggravated when the hospital staff treats him poorly but excited when he gets to look at his beautiful nurses. The inner monologue is essential to making the audience understand his conscience and mood. We can hear Bauby say his name even when his doctor does not.
Schnabel’s dazzling and devastating film, adapted with invention, is a visceral masterpiece. It traps the viewer in Bauby’s conscience and imagination, making us live the suffering and serenades with him. It is a sensual film that makes us appreciate our own faculties – sight, taste, touch, hearing – as the character opens up with his past and present. We cling to what makes him human. The film adaptation walks us through the space of his mind as it roves, similar to how we imagine a place, person or setting of our own when we read a novel.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a poignant and thrillingly inventive film that connects us, viscerally and emotionally, to a man’s locked-in circumstance and his fiery imagination. It is one of the finest book-to-film adaptations in contemporary cinema.