Eye of the beholder
Film captures the essence of late writer’s memoir
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has already won the Golden Globe for Best Director, and the Oscar folks have nominated it in that category and three others as well. Those accolades may come as a bit of a surprise, especially since the film is the least hyped and the most arcane of the front-runners in the ongoing film-of-the-year sweepstakes.
And while the fact of its being based on an emotionally powerful best-selling memoir may guarantee it an extra measure of prestige, that memoir’s substance—a man struggling back to the margins of consciousness and vitality, after a stroke has left him almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak—still looms as an unlikely basis for a feature-length movie.
With key contributions from screenwriter Ronald Harwood and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, director Julian Schnabel has fashioned an astonishingly effective film version of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, the slim volume that was published just days before his death in 1996.
The Schnabel-Harwood rendition begins with the first moments of Bauby’s emerging from his coma and the first dawning awareness that he is unable to speak, and that his left eye and eyelid are the only parts of his body he can still move. He hears and sees and understands others, but can communicate with them only through a painstakingly developed system of eye-blinks. (Eventually he uses the system to move beyond brief, slow conversations to the writing, via dictation, of the text that will become his published memoir.)
Most crucially, the movie’s entry into the story—and Bauby’s consciousness—arrives literally in terms of his drastically limited point of view. In fact, all but a very few of the movie’s images are from Bauby’s vantage point—via that increasingly active left eye, but also eventually through the inner eye of memory and imagination, and occasional blends of fantasy and reality.
The film creates a complex and persuasive sense of mental space, with modest but real blends of compassion and insight. Mathieu Amalric, the distinctively quirky French actor who plays Bauby, is only occasionally visible in the film—in some memorable flashback sequences and in the intermittent cutaway shots of Bauby in his hospital bed or wheelchair. But he is often very present by way of the voice-overs that embody Bauby’s thoughts and give us a whole extra dimension of access to the prickly, sardonic, defiant spirit that persists within this grievously afflicted man.
A couple of flashbacks—Bauby shaving his aged father (Max von Sydow), and breaking up with a girlfriend (Marina Hands) on a visit to Lourdes—provide some strong and relatively conventional moments of emotion, but much of what is best in the film emerges from the interplay between the stream of images, Amalric’s voice-overs, and the parade of striking faces and characters who appear in Bauby’s limited but by no means unobservant line of vision.
The most resourceful and tireless of his physical therapists (Marie-Josée Croze) and the young woman (Anne Consigny) who takes dictation for his memoir loom particularly large in that picture, but no more so than Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), estranged partner and mother of his three children, who reins in resentments to which she seems plainly entitled.
Issach De Bankolé and Niels Arestrup make strong, separate impressions as two more friends from Bauby’s recent past. Schnabel’s eclectic selections for the music track reverberate nicely as part of the implied backstory for Bauby’s reveries.