The almost unbearably poignant memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who found himself immobilized by “locked-in syndrome” after a stroke, becomes a ready-made canvas for the painterly indulgences of Julian Schnabel in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Most compelling in its attempts to re-create the experience of paralysis onscreen, gorgeously lensed pic morphs into a dreamlike collage of memories and fantasies, distancing the viewer somewhat from Bauby’s consciousness even as it seeks to take one deeper. Still affecting, and already sold to a number of territories, bittersweet “Butterfly” should find a warm worldwide reception upon release from the Cannes cocoon.
It’s impossible to read even a sentence of Bauby’s miraculous memoir — published in 1997, three days before the former Elle editor-in-chief died at 45 — without an awareness of the monumental exertions it must have taken him to write it. Painstakingly dictated, one letter and one blink at a time (his eyelid being the only muscle he could control), it’s the work of a fantastically keen and witty mind, trapped in a vegetative state.
The viewer experiences that state alongside Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) from the film’s disorienting first frame, which opens, “Twilight Zone”-like, from the p.o.v. of a hospital bed as he awakens from a coma. Realizing he can’t move or speak, Bauby learns from the smarmy Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais) that his brain stem has been incapacitated, leaving him paralyzed.
Early sequences are inventively shot by Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski, who blurs the focus and makes the images quake and shudder, mimicking the sensations of drifting in and out of consciousness. It’s from this vantage that we meet the people in Bauby’s life, including his children, Theophile (Theo Sampaio) and Celeste (Fiorella Campanella); their mother, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner); speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), who teaches him the rudimentary, blink-powered alphabet system that becomes his means of communication; and Claude (Anne Consigny), who takes dictation for his book.
Staying at a naval hospital in northern France, Bauby also receives visits from friends Laurent (Isaach de Bankole) and Roussin (Niels Arestrup). Latter’s own amazing backstory, involving four years spent as a hostage in Beirut, awakens unresolved feelings of guilt in Bauby.
Though the initial first-person perspective may try some auds’ patience, Amalric’s delightful interior monologue — by turns wry, sardonic, panicky and lascivious — proves continually involving. It doesn’t hurt that almost every woman who enters the frame (health-care professionals included) looks young and beautiful enough to have stepped from the pages of Bauby’s magazine, or that the walls of the coastal hospital are such an inviting shade of sea green. Even when portraying the lower depths of human suffering, artist-turned-filmmaker Schnabel paints a pretty picture.
Eventually, the camera’s scope broadens and the viewer is taken outside Bauby’s motionless form, shown confined to either bed or wheelchair. Additional stimulation is provided by the vivid interpretations of Bauby’s very active imagination: The titular symbols of oppression and freedom are both literalized, as is an extended hallucination of the Empress Eugenie. “I cultivate the art of simmering memories,” Bauby writes, and the book is crammed with intimate reveries and recollections that Schnabel all but lunges at in his eagerness to craft a surreally creative essay on the human condition.
In that respect, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” fits snugly alongside 1996’s “Basquiat” and 2000’s “Before Night Falls” in Schnabel’s gallery of tortured, misunderstood artists. But the fact that Bauby suffered for every word of his art, whereas Schnabel has bottomless visual resources at his disposal, inevitably makes the film a less intimate, more exterior experience.
Amalric is perfect within the tightly circumscribed parameters of his role, spending much of the pic immobilized with one eye wide open and his lip in a permanent droop. Thesp also has a pair of wonderful scenes with Max Von Sydow as his aging father, who weeps when he realizes, during a phone call, that Bauby can’t answer back.
Pic reps a talent reunion of sorts from Spielberg’s “Munich,” reteaming producer Kathleen Kennedy, actors Amalric and Croze, and d.p. Kaminski, whose work is a continual wonder to behold. Juliette Welfing’s editing maintains coherence despite multiple shifts in perspective.
Paul Cantelon’s piano music amplifies the film’s delicate, conflicting emotions, while somewhat less gracefully, the soundtrack samples everything from U2 and Tom Waits to the scores from “The 400 Blows” and “Lolita.” Inventive credits sequences were designed by Schnabel himself.