The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

December 1, 2007 § Leave a comment

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Photo:

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly belongs in the rare category of art that genuinely requires a trip down memory lane to visit the predecessors before we discuss the work itself. At the height of existentialism, writer Andre Gide elevated his fascination with mise en abyme to the status of philosophical puzzle. A thing within a thing, a conical construction funneling into an abyss. That is the most obvious mise en abyme, but it was wholly uninteresting, and more importantly, did nothing to advance the possibilities of art. So what if instead of a visual mise en abyme, we pondered a conceptual one—a thing within a thing, but which is which, and once we determine that, are the things’ statuses stable, or can they easily flip? Simply by reframing, if you will, the mise en abyme, we can use it to discuss problems of perception, perspective, even reality.

Director Julian Schnabel is a brilliant painter, so it is no surprise he understands that the canvas (or broken porcelain plates when his mortgage is past due) is limited. Whereas visual art can only dream of creating a conceptual mise en abyme, movies have a much easier time. Or so this film would have us believe. For as Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) moves seamlessly between reality and his own imagination, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly moves seamlessly with him: reality as the audience sees it and Bauby’s perspective are inseparable. A man’s telling of his story within his story and both within the film. Yes, the abyss is much less painful, but by the time Schnabel is done, it is impossible to not see that he has created a work of art, and we are privileged to have witnessed it.

The film is based on Bauby’s memoir of the same name. While living the fuck-you life as Elle’s Editor in Chief, Bauby suffered a massive stroke, resulting in a rare affliction known as locked-in syndrome. Completely functional mentally but paralyzed except for his left eye and eyelid, he finds escape in his imagination and memory. To allow him to communicate, a speech therapist recites an alphabet where the letters are arranged by frequency of usage and Bauby need only blink his left eye when the desired letter comes up. Eventually, Bauby forms words, sentences, and with the help of Claude (Anne Consigny) taking down his dictation, a memoir.

And what a memoir it is. The actual book is rather slim, owing to the slow and arduous process of letter-by-letter dictation. Come to life in Schnabel’s hands, however, one would never have suspected it, for the film unapologetically insists on the fullness of Bauby’s life and capacity to live, both pre and post-illness. His obsession with women invites a puritanically-tinted hindsight, but he regards each with such attention to detail and admiration for her unique beauty that while playboy may be a fitting label, sensualist is more appropriate. Josephine is bathed in sepia as Bauby remembers their time in the French countryside. His memory of Ines’ face is obscured, but he is mesmerized by her unaffected movement as she crosses a room to hang a picture in the apartment they share. If women were his only preoccupation, sensualist would be a misnomer. Worry not; they are combined with food. Bauby’s oyster-filled kisses with Claude offer a uniquely French artistic moment: the little death of animalistic primitivism driving the superhuman ingenuity of a kiss with a kaleidoscope of mouths. Breaking with the habit of most severely ill patients, Bauby scorns religion. Bauby’s life is very much the territory of the world, and he shows no contrition for having made it so.

Oddly, however much Bauby is of the world, he never seems to be truly in it. Naturally, this is bound to happen as he transitions into experiencing life mainly through reimaginings of what has already happened. Indeed, the decision to reenter life through writing his memoir triggers a deep withdrawal into his own mind, becoming steadily deeper as the work nears completion. He pictures himself as a Spanish bullfighter, straight from the always-on sports channel in his hospital room, a butterfly escaping a cocoon, an extreme snowboarder, Ozymandias, Marlon Brando. He recalls his face as it was before the stroke, lingers on it, lovingly and longingly regarding what he looked like when healthy. This is not mere indulgence in fantasies; it is palpable separation. As frequently as he imagines the butterfly, he sees himself on a pier surrounded by water on all sides. And as much as he loves his children and enjoys their company, their visit on Father’s Day is met with a droll, “We never fitted this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar.” Reflecting on his memoir as a whole, Bauby flags, without irony, all its elements—the plot, the characters, the internal monologue—retelling the contents as if he were the narrator. As we recognize each item he recites, we realize this is a story within a story—Bauby lives a life within a life.

At this point, Schnabel’s insistence on shooting only from Bauby’s visual perspective could have proven fatal. Butterflies and bullfighters are child’s play compared to more expansive renderings of Bauby’s landscapes. So how to create the illusion of a life within a life without the contamination of a third party? A mise en abyme. It is here that Schnabel ingeniously fulfills the dream of the existentialists. So effortless and natural is the shift from Bauby’s internal perception to a more comprehensive perspective that, at times, we do not see the shift when it happens, and by the end of the film, we wonder if the shift ever happened. When Bauby’s reflection on his memoir is followed by a dream of jumping up from his wheelchair is followed by Claude taking down his dictation for another word of that memoir, it seems just as logical to attribute everything to the same storyteller as it is to be aware that each scene represents different perspectives and therefore different storytellers. If the camera is not chained to Bauby’s eye, capturing his perception down to the pattern of blinks and the odd film of colors the eye sees when it first opens, then it moves around an image as if unable to see all of it. There is rarely a scene in which the cinematography is comfortable, familiar, untrue. With daunting craftsmanship, Schnabel’s mise en abyme realistically captures Bauby’s perspective without constraining the film to it. Any hint of rigging and the illusion would have been shattered, but perfection belongs to the rare artist who is both meticulous and stubbornly impractical. Even if the movie as a whole turns out to be fallible, each shot and the succession of shots are not.

Sadly, the film is indeed imperfect. It forgets in its pursuit of realism and accuracy that art is still fundamentally a contrivance. Its keystone, three-time Cesar Award (the French Oscar) winner Mathieu Amalric, admirably delivers his lines in the voice of a dying man—weak, metallic, emphatic only when provoked. In a visit to Bauby himself, this is what one would encounter. On film, it comes across as tired and indeliberate. One moment Bauby can barely muster energy to think and the next he tosses out a brilliant zinger. His voice is loudest when a nurse turns off the TV right in the middle of a soccer match, softer when the doctor sews up his right eye to prevent it from getting infected. A dying man is spared judgment on the coherence of his expression. Not so easy for one playing a dying man. Illogical, but art has its own sensibility.

Aside for Amalric, the movie was an acting tour de force. Emmanuelle Seigner as Celine, the jilted mother of Bauby’s children, is the perfect embodiment of controlled heartbreak. Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father wrestles Shakespearean tragedy into the realism of this film. Speech therapist Henriette Durand (brilliant and understated Marie Josèe Croze) comforts not only Bauby, but also the audience with her patience and spot-on empathy. Because these actors were shot as if Bauby were looking at them, the camera could only focus on their faces. One misplaced twitch was enough to ruin a scene, and as said before, all scenes are picture-perfect.

If it is of any comfort, at the same time the film suffers from too much realism, it also suffers from too much devotion to art. Not all art is warm to the touch, but Schnabel cannot claim this excuse after a proven track record with powerful emotion. It is therefore all the more surprising that this movie would come across as so cold. There is no lingering feeling when the screen blacks and the credits role, only admiration for having seen such an intelligent film. I suppose we have gotten used to seeing films about severely ill patients inspiring us, saddening us, haunting us. From this film, nothing. And while the mise en abyme is masterfully executed, we still can identify the illusion, even if we believe it. Indeed, if The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has any faults, it is that it reeks of high art. Its passionate nature inspires mimicry more than germination.


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