Critics often throw around phrases like "celebration of the human spirit," but one 2007 film genuinely earns them: Le scaphandre et le papillon, a.k.a. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Eccentric American director Julian Schnabel tackles this French-language story about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the one-time Elle editor struck down, at age 43, to a state of near-complete paralysis. The stunning result qualifies as a masterpiece of sensual cinema and poetic subjectivity.
The film opens with a bravura fifteen-minute passage from Bauby's P.O.V. (ended with less than a minute of third-person reprieve): he wakes to the quickly dawning horror of his situation, interrupted by flashes of color and memory and little helped by the bedside manner of his well-meaning but inevitably condescending diagnosticians. Described as "Ambitious, somewhat cynical, heretofore a stranger to failure," Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) has to wonder whether he has the emotional strength to handle his physical condition after a "cerebrovascular accident," a three-week coma, and the loss of speech and all movement except the blinking of one eye.
That eye is not only Bauby's sole window to the world, but his only means of communication. Attended by a patient and caring nurse (Marie-Josée Croze), Bauby blinks out his anger and his hopelessness, despite choruses of "there's hope" from all who pass his gaze. The audience gets more, through Bauby's thoughts; inner monologue has never seemed so vital. "Other than my eye," Bauby thinks, "two things aren't paralyzed. My imagination and my memory." Down these paths lie pain, but also joie de vivre, and soon his thoughts of suicide turn to exploring avenues of reaching out, including blinking out the autobiography on which the film is based.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) sensitively adapts that book, but the film has the strong authorial stamp of Schnabel, in its personal but somehow not bothersome flights into imagery and music, some redolent of classic film (the music of Nino Rota, "Singin' in the Rain," cuts from Lolita and The 400 Blows), some of rock (U2, Lou Reed, Joe Strummer, Tom Waits), some of classical (Bach). Schnabel's supreme stylistic assurance has a vital partner in cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan), who wields tightly composed close-ups and expansive views of a shoreline to equally potent effect.
Eventually the point of view pulls out of Bauby's head for brief passages of his life before and after paralyzation. Amalric convincingly portrays both lives, the latter with distended lip and wide, bloodshot eye, which he uses to suck in the world like air to a choking man. Bauby's father (Max von Sydow) plays a role in both lives, as do Bauby's children and their mother (Emmanuelle Seigner), and a girlfriend (Marina Hands) who accompanies him to Lourdes. There, a garish Madonna with a light-up halo mockingly foreshadows that he needn't ever wait for earthly miracles. Or is his fate a miracle in disguise? Told "Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you'll survive," Bauby has occasion to consider at length his twist of fate, asking himself, "Did the harsh light of disaster make me find my true nature?"
Schnabel sees the prismatic nature of self as Bauby does, in imagination (the titular images of confinement and freedom, Fellinesque passages appropriate for a character surrounded by beautiful women) and memory. Present and past are reflected in family: a father, his son, and his son. In a key flashback, von Sydow and Amalric bond before a mirror reflecting them and ringed with family photos; later, we share in the tragic memory of Bauby's last moments of physical freedom, on a day meant to be shared with his son. It's a heart-shattering film: beautiful, arresting, ruefully funny, and in turns hopeful and profoundly sad.