Part of me loves this film because of the feeling it creates of being trapped within one space, having a restricted sense of movement – and part of me finds it especially difficult to watch it because of the same reasons. Somehow, Julian Schnabel has crafted an entirely claustrophobic experience through this haunting and heartbreaking true story with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and at the same time one of the best films of the decade, maybe even the century. The first experience I had watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I came in blind – but soon I only found myself in for an experience so empathetic, it shattered me the moment it was over. After a few years of not having watched it, its impact didn’t merely stay the same. What happened instead was that it spoke much more to me. Maybe I haven’t suffered the same way that Jean-Do has, but the imprisoned feeling that it ever so perfectly captured was something that resonated with me beyond words.
Recalling the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do as his friends referred to him), an editor for the French magazine ELLE, Julian Schnabel’s biopic confines itself: but only in such a manner it makes the work all the more haunting. Schanebl keeps the whole film from the perspective of Jean-Do as he lives through locked-in syndrome after having suffered a massive stroke, thus leaving him without the ability to move any part of his body minus his left eyelid – soon becoming his only mode of communication. As we watch everything happen as Jean-Do sees it, Schnabel does not shy away from letting his own thoughts narrate the film: if anything were ever set to make the film all the more haunting. But as Jean-Do’s narration pervaded the film, something only resonated with me all the more because I felt trapped. I felt trapped as I was watching Jean-Do feeling imprisoned within his immobile body, he’s still a man whose mind functions normally.
This humility is where I found The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to become such a harrowing experience as a whole. I knew that feeling of being so closed in as a result of the world around myself, to that point where it was difficult communicating with others because only oneself understands fully what oneself is thinking. I found myself drawing a parallel towards my life on the autistic spectrum in some manner, because I think loudly inside my head like Jean-Do is as he is trying to communicate with people from the outside. Julian Schnabel shows nothing but great dedication to reflecting upon this thought process in order to create a feeling of claustrophobia as he tells Jean-Do’s story right from his very own eyes and mind thus creating what ultimately has become its greatest asset; empathy. But from here alone I only found something speaking to me of greater lengths inside even if I were not suffering to such a degree.
When I talk about my own experiences, I feel like I can draw an indirect connection between Jean-Do’s own thought process and my own. Both of us carry our own difficulties with communicating with the outside and having everyone understand our emotions so perfectly because Jean-Do’s point of view only has him able to respond when someone asks him a question of any sort. It was within there I found a much stronger sense of empathy was arising from Schnabel’s end, because we have his own thoughts telling another story from Jean-Do’s own eyes. He’s trying to reach out, but the world he lives in almost feels as if it is closing up on him more; and yet he managed to find his calling as he wrote the memoir about his experiences. And given how long it took for him to have as much as a single word typed out, there comes inspiration from success but at the same time comes pain from the claustrophobia.
But as Schnabel intercuts between the present and past, it all merges together to form something almost heavenly whether it be within the visual style or the storytelling. In Schnabel’s film what comes by as presented by imagery is reflection of the psyche, by showing fantasy and reality for it was only set to create a greater understanding of what could have only been possible. And within the brave directorial choices he makes in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly whether it be from how he starts off the film from a first-person perspective, it’s all the more entrancing as one looks upon how what is recreated here is almost like a personal heaven for Jean-Do. This whole film’s use of imagery is especially stunning, whether it be from the point-of-view shots or the more mystifying moments of fantasy because they all add up to representing what it is that Jean-Do is thinking and feeling the whole way through, something that would have been especially difficult for any other filmmaker to show in such an immaculate fashion.
Yet all of this power comes as a result of Mathieu Amalric’s performance as Jean-Do, not only in how he reads what goes on within his mind but how he embodies this feeling of imprisonment through a sense of roaming. And in Amalric’s performance one can feel a man who isn’t afraid of death, but a man who is trying to find a way to break free. A man who wants out of the prison that his body has become, it was from the simplicity of this performance where something so haunting, inspiring, and overall moving has come about. In supporting roles come Emmanuelle Seigner and Max von Sydow, who also contribute to arguably some of the film’s most touching sequences, but as they all come in there comes a greater power inside of Jean-Do’s need for communication and his search for a way to reach out. But in how Schnabel overcomes such adversity is where something so inspiring has come about, and thus a much more heartbreaking experience in the meantime.
There’s a whole lot more that I would ever want to write about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly because I haven’t felt such empathy coming to me in a manner so reflective as a result of how claustrophobia is captured here. I would only want to find myself writing more about how much this story left such great joy just as it was one that haunted me with heartbreak because of the state where Jean-Dominique Bauby was left within, seeking a means of communication as he finds himself trapped within a prison. But as it sinks into my head all the more, there’s another prison that I’m living within and I’m still struggling to break free. Because even within Jean-Do’s reflection upon happier moments as highlighted by the imagery and the soundtrack, we still feel a great sadness looming within them. But am I ready to talk about everything this film has done to me, that’s the real question to beg. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells us all about what we see and how we know, it isn’t so much about what has happened to Bauby. It’s about what he’s thinking on the inside, and his quest to find a manner to allow the outside to hear every word of it. And what followed was something so heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure, all of my words have only become lost in ramble.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Miramax Films.
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, from the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik
Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Max von Sydow
Release Year: 2007
Running Time: 112 minutes