“Did the harsh light of disaster make me find my true nature?”
2007. In French w/ subtitles. Rated R. Out on DVD. Directed by Julian Schnabel. Based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny, Marina Hands, Isaach De Bankole and Max Von Sydow.
In 1995, Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, only 42 years old, suffered a massive stroke, rendering him mute and paralyzed, suffering from a rare disease called “locked-in” syndrome. He could still see out of his left eye and hear, but his only form of communication was by blinking. Remarkably, Bauby, with the help of a speech therapist and later a publishing company employee, dictated a memoir, which American artist/director Julian Schnabel adapted for last year’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
The film opens in the hospital room and while the bulk of the movie is shot from Bauby’s perspective, the first third is almost entirely shot in first person point-of-view, with Schnabel trying to give us an idea of what Bauby is experiencing. At first it makes the film intentionally difficult to watch, as we understand the claustrophobic situation that Bauby has found himself in. As someone with a aversion towards doctors and hospitals, that did not make it any easier to watch.
But as Bauby uses his imagination and memories (the butterfly) to escape his current state (the diving bell), the film expands as his mind expands. The film chronicles the aftermath of Bauby’s accident, the writing of his autobiography and importantly, the effect his condition has on his relationships with his ex-girlfriend (Seigner), current girlfriend (Hands), his friends and his caretakers.
But the best scenes in the movie deal with the relationship between Bauby and his ailing father (Von Sydow). While the film has a number of really strong scenes and touching moments, these stand out as truly affecting. The latter of the two is one of the better, most emotionally stirring scenes of any movie in recent years.
Amalric, who you may recognize from Munich but who also is going to be the baddie in the next James Bond film, is great in the showcase role. In the few flashbacks to Bauby’s prior life, we get a great idea of what type of guy he was as a contrast to who he is after his stroke. Seigner, as the mother of Bauby’s children, is heartbreaking, and as mentioned above, Von Sydow is brilliant.
Schnabel, who won the Golden Globe for Best Director and was nominated for an Oscar, along with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, does a tremendous job of storytelling, and delivers a number of beautiful images. The narrative structure is seamless, and the film is tightly focused for the most part, but there was one sequence that could have been left out. The only other thing that bothered me, and this has nothing to do with the quality of the film, was the subtitles when Bauby is dictating — rather than spell out the French word and then translating it, the subtitles just spell out the English word. So, the character will be saying “M” for the French word that’s coming and the subtitle will say “D” because that’s the English word that’s coming. A silly quibble, but it definitely bothered me.
The fact that this story was ever told is in and of itself is amazing, but Schnabel has done so in a very satisfying and artistic way. The film is sad and uplifting at the same time, and though the story is relatively simple and straightforward, it does have a lot to say about the nature of love, friendship and what it means to be human.