The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Starring Mathieu Amalric. In French with English subtitles. Unrated. Opens Tuesday, December 25, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
Many people have felt trapped in–or forced out of–their bodies in times of great stress. This can lead to a kind of self-detachment. But for Jean-Dominique Bauby–waking up in a seaside hospital, unable to move or speak–this means that a stroke has left him with a rare and permanent condition called locked-in syndrome.
For another director, this material–based on real events–might have led to a disease-of-the-week special. But for Julian Schnabel, it's an opportunity to celebrate the colours swirling in the seemingly stillest of minds.
As played unforgettably by Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Dominique is an unstoppable force of nature–a happening Parisian fashion journalist who comes to a violent halt while driving through the French countryside. Soon he's staring at burbling doctors, unable to answer what seem to be absurd questions. Actually, he is responding; he just can't understand why they don't hear him. On top of that, an infection in one eye leaves blinking the other as his sole contact with the outer world.
Even in this condition, Jean-Do is assessing romantic possibilities. Granted, there's a lot to look at in the form of his physical therapist (Anne Consigny), a stenographer (Marina Hands), and a speech specialist (Marie-Josée Croze), with the last teaching him a kind of ocular semaphore by which Bauby was able to dictate the witty, playful memoir on which this is based.
Schnabel is interested in more than words, although these spill handily from the pen of screenwriter Ronald Harwood. And in a couple of heartbreaking scenes, Max von Sydow plays the aging father who is suddenly likely to outlive his son.
If these descriptions make Diving Bell sound like a downer, just remember where butterflies come from: it's not pretty, but it sure is beautiful.