Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do to his friends) could hardly complain. He enjoyed a successful career (editor of Elle France magazine), had three cute kids, his relationship with his separated wife was amiable, and his mistress had recently moved in to live with him.
Jean-Do loved women and life and the feeling it seems, was mutual: he was one of those fortunate mortals earmarked for love and happiness. Until one day in his 43rd year, a stroke deprived him of everything. Jean-Do was diagnosed with Locked-In syndrome, a paralytic state that incapacitates all mobility while leaving the mind crystal clear. When Jean-Do recovered consciousness in the hospital, he had just one working body part: his left eye.
Directed by Julian Schnabel, “Le scaphandre et le papillon” (international title: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) is based on the autobiography of Bauby, which he dictated to his communications therapist. Every day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Bauby blinked out letters one by one, word by word, battling monstrous fatigue and optical strain. Immediately after publication Bauby died.
“Le scaphandre,” however, isn’t a teary testimonial nor an exercise in life affirmation; rather, it’s a disinterested but sincere effort to capture and re-enact the world that Bauby was forced to inhabit. The result is both wondrous to behold and taxing on the senses — for about two thirds of the film Schnabel has the lens function as Bauby’s left eye (the camera basically becomes Bauby himself), enabling us to see what Bauby must have seen: angled, enormous close-ups that come rushing into vision and blurred and distanced images moving on the periphery of the frame. These confused shapes gradually either form into figures or recede into darkness.
To show what Bauby “saw” out of his nonfunctioning right eye, Schanbel deployed an ingenious, low-tech device: two layers of latex applied to the camera lens, then sewn together. The result is a milky white sheen in which the barest fragments of tantalizing light filters through.
Schnabel’s visual acrobatics are intriguing, but in the end it’s Bauby himself (played by the excellent Mathieu Amalric) who — prostrate as he is or upright and healthy as his former self in flashbacks — steals every scene. His wry, acerbic outlook on life combined with a buoyant, bon vivant persona never failed him and he managed to remain his charming self right until the end. You can see it in the eyes of all the women who literally thronged his bedside: Nurses, therapists, girlfriends and colleagues — all of them gorgeous, generous angels in revealing outfits blessing Jean-Do with delightful close-ups of their chests as they lean over him and vie for his attention. His ex-wife Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner) is openly jealous over Bauby’s relationship with his speech-therapist, Claude (Anne Consigny), since she gets the most “quality time” as they work together on the book.
None of these women express any pity; rather they pay him the supreme compliment of treating him as a desirable male. It’s astonishing how deliciously amorous a personal life can get even when confined permanently to a hospital bed. One of the most moving moments in the film is when Bauby asks Celine to “translate” his blinks and speak to his current lover on the phone, so that he can pour his heart out. Celine consents, and feigns coolness, but when she turns her face away we get a glimpse of her heartache.
Bauby compared his state to wearing an antiquated diving suit in the bottom of the sea — his body encased and weighed down by an impossibly heavy and cumbersome contraption. Initially, he confesses to Claude that he wishes to die, but his inherent passion for life catches up, letting him discover what he calls “his other senses,” which awaken after the stroke.
In the book Bauby writes about how, after losing his ability to hear due to the stroke, “the hearing inside the head” turned high-definition, and he could make out the sounds of butterfly wings that reached his brain from somewhere far, far away. Schnabel re-creates this sensation with exceptional sensitivity, letting us actually feel the delicate and barely discernible sounds that could be drowned out any minute by his own “loud breathing.”
Bauby’s dreams also became more vivid and sensual than before. There’s a beautiful sequence in which Bauby, healthy and groomed, is having dinner in a swank restaurant with Claude. Delightedly they dine on oysters and guzzle wine from huge, glittering goblets, but there’s a slight bow to reality — Bauby is in hospital pajamas and a dressing gown.
“Le scaphandre” is brilliant in that it goes beyond the realm of a successful adaptation to capture and immortalize the very essence and spirit of the protagonist on screen. There’s sadness and depths of despair, but the overriding emotion is of the joy that comes from living and experiencing life: a gift that Bauby held onto during the bleakest hours.
“Le scaphandre et le papillon” is released in Japan as “Sensuifuku wa cho no Yume wo Miru.”