As I watched my grandfather wither away from Alzheimer’s over the last year of his life, and stories about victims of strokes and nerve diseases continue to fill nightly news reports, it has been a personal fear of mine to end up a prisoner in my own body due to such a disorder. A lack of control over myself is a terrifying notion, and the recent film ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ explores this concept with a startling depth and grace. This intensity is beautifully tempered by the aesthetic choices of director Julian Schnabel, who has led a rich career as a painter and has pieces in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, among many others.
The film is based on a true story about the editor of the French edition of fashion magazine Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby. This educated and cultured man, in the midst of leading a life rich with fancy toys, beautiful clothes and nubile women, suffers a debilitating stroke. The audience, for the first third of the film, is trapped with Jean-Do (as his friends call him) inside his head. We are as unaware as he is of his inability to speak, as we clearly hear his inner monologue and responses to the doctors’ questions. Thus, we are just as shocked as he when the doctor coos, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll regain your speech soon.’ We learn, along with him, that he has been completely paralyzed, and only has control over his eyes. Not only that, but we watch from the inside as his doctors declare that one of his eyes is ‘in danger of becoming septic’ and is slowly, painfully sewn shut, and we hear his desperate, silent pleas ‘not to take [his] eye.’ We are privy to the overwhelming frustration and anger that Jean-Do experiences, and his desire for suicide comes as no surprise.
The intuitive qualities of Jean-Do’s bodily circumstances are portrayed with a heartbreaking combination of warm intimacy and harsh reality, and are juxtaposed with snippets of his fast-lane life in a way that highlights the intense stillness of his current condition. As he is being bathed, we hear his inner voice reflecting on his return to the physicality of an infant. We see his glamorous, jet-setting life in a blur of tree branches moving above an open convertible, and are then thrust onto a beach where he sits in his wheelchair, the only movement being the breeze fluttering across his pajamas. One would expect that he would lose all hope for any kind of a life at all, until he is introduced to a bevy of beauties including his speech therapist, a physiotherapist and a publisher’s assistant. They, along with visits from the devoted mother of his children, lift him from his misery and show him that he must take advantage of the only means of communication available to him. The speech therapist stares into his one working eye while reciting the alphabet, and he blinks at the letter he wants to use. Thus, he speaks, letter by letter, with the outside world. It is in this manner that he decides to write his memoir, and he realizes that he is not paralyzed, when his mind and imagination can take him anywhere.
At this point, the cinematography comes to its full power; Jean-Do imagines breaking waves, buzzing bees and crashing glaciers. Schnabel’s aesthetic paints the colors of the film and photographs the subject matter in startlingly lovely, velvety colors and textures