No filament of art could have come into this world if it was but for a sense of perception. More so to say, a visual perception matters a lot in order to create it. For some, art is beauty, a force to reckon and admire. For the less artistically inclined, art and perception, in more ways than one, is merely a matter of occurrence. Nothing more, and god forbid nothing less.
Take the cross section of the eye for example. It might look like an ugly, dented wedding ring for some. For the academically inclined, they might see names in every single detail, the conjunctiva, the cornea, pupil, iris, the crystalline lens, ciliary processes, vitreous humor, blind-spot, optic nerve, thalamus of the brain, occipital lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, et al. An artist merely sees a ray of light. It passes through a filmy layer, a protective layer, a tiny entry in an anterior chamber controlled by an organic, circular door, glass, dark room, focal point, and finally, finally an endless hallway of radiant, starlit brilliance, covered at every square inch of every single square acre of space available with a tapestry that only a mind can evolve. And it was inside this incredible hallway, deep inside a paralytic cripple where neo-expressionist painter Julian Schnabel sat with a camera and filmed this humanly undeniable impossibility of art called Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, known to our side of the divided world as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, thank goodness for cinema! For this world needs more people like Schnabel, to save movie lovers from the abyss of shit that cinema has become, thanks to three things: Popcorn, Remote Control and Money. Enough crying over spoilt milk, Jean-Dominique Bauby is waking up!
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski with a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, the film begins with Bauby's confused awakening in the hospital after twenty days in a coma. We see only a blur of images and claustrophobic close-ups that mirror the patient's mental state. We can make out a hospital room and doctors and nurses offering reassuring thoughts. We hear Bauby's words but the doctors do not and we know that while his body isn't functioning, his mind is as sharp as ever. He later learns that a stroke he suffered had caused a 'locked in' syndrome. Immediately, fear sets in leading to panic and terror. Screams of help go unheeded, unanswered, futile.
After a long period of recuperation, he comes to terms with his condition and then reviews his options as an author. Henriteet (lovely Marie Jozee Croze), a speech therapist, uses a unique method of communicating with Jean thru pronouncing the alphabets and Jean would form a word or sentence by blinking the eye. After getting to know her much more better, Jean found his way to survive thru the disabilities: imagination and beautiful memories. Both set his spirit free, and he feels like he is flying like a butterfly. The book he writes, and on which this film is based, is the one he is remembered for. I haven't read it. But his powers of expression, glimpsed in the film, make me want to buy it. The book he nearly wrote - a re-write of the Count of Monte Cristo - would probably be pulped. But Schnabel's visual sense undoubtedly gives the film a dimension prose could not, and there is also an artful soundtrack. Despite the downbeat ending I finished in a reasonably cheerful frame of mind – if I were a paraplegic I'd count myself as lucky. What happened to Jean-Do must be pretty well the worst that could happen, physically, to anyone. Yet he manages to survive as a person despite being incarcerated in his own body.
The monotone recitation of the alphabet and the blinking of the eye forms a mesmerizing but eventually monotonous leitmotif to a screenplay that attempts to portray the paradox of an unfettered and ever-expanding human consciousness trapped in a broken and disintegrating body. Ultimately, I felt somehow battered into submission by the sheer relentlessness of Schnabel's first person approach, at least insofar as every perspective we see is somehow skewed at an oblique angle, or viewed through a shaky, misty or watery lens, or takes us off on some utterly random tangent that may well reflect the unfettered 'butterfly' imagination that Bauby came to experience but nevertheless feels too private and too disconnected to mean much to the viewer. Schnabel is an accomplished artist first and film-maker only second, and his work here feels more like a piece of installation art than a piece of cinema. The apotheosis of his vision, or rather its nadir as far as this viewer was concerned, is found in the sequence where Bauby's still-functioning yet dangerously non-irrigating right eye has to be permanently sealed shut. In what is no doubt a remarkable piece of cinematography - and there is no finer exponent of the art than Schnabel's chosen collaborator here, Kaminski - we watch from Bauby's own perspective as the doctor's needle threads itself across the eyelid, gradually filling the screen with darkness. It's a gruesome scene that exposes the gimmickry that underlies Schnabel's entire approach.
In an heroic effort to portray the struggle, rather than the tragedy, the film casts its subject in jelly-bean colors. To some extent, it feels churlish and even mean-spirited to find fault here. But I'm judging a film rather than Bauby the man or his remarkable achievement. Bauby himself seems refreshingly honest in his unflattering portrayal of himself. He's not a man who is easy to warm to, but then the last thing he intended was to court sympathy.Apparently Jean-Do Bauby was the luckiest paralytic in France. I can barely imagine his life as editor of Elle, but after the stroke he lives by the sea, surrounded by beauties who exist only to help him. He fantasizes about taking them to dinner, and making love to them and to the Empress Eugenie. Unlike so many guy-stuck-in-bed movies (SEA INSIDE, WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY, BONE COLLECTOR), this one never gets maudlin. It celebrates life instead of demanding its end. I have nothing against suicide - if you're unhappy, get lost - but I don't want to watch another movie about somebody who just wants to die. This movie makes SEA INSIDE look like a self-pitying ballad. No, actually, SEA INSIDE did that to itself. But by comparison, this one has its protagonist pirouetting and leaping for joy. While it's impossible not to be moved by the sheer awfulness of his suffering, and, let's face it, chilled to the bone by the way he was so suddenly plunged into it, it's perhaps easier to be emotionally involved in the plight of those he 'left behind', principally his children and their mother, his ex-lover Céline, his elderly and infirm father, and his present lover Inès, who is so shaken by events that she can't bring herself to visit him even though she misses him desperately.
There’s all this talk about Mathieu Almaric replacing the great Johnny Depp in Bauby’s role, but too much of a good is bad, I guess. And Almaric really does justice to the deficit. Depp is a terrific actor, but somehow I feel that his powerful presence would have easily overshadowed the character arc of Bauby.
Schnabel describes the souvenirs and bits of one's life that one must be seeing while standing before the gates of death, but in this particular case taking just a little longer. However, Bauby has already died, and has come back to life as an eye.The film is also about what it means to be an artist. Sickness is a bit like genius, a source of misunderstanding and exclusion, and the artist, like the patient, is in constant battle against the outside world. To escape one's fate, society's cruelty and restraints, one can only rely on one's own intelligence, creativity, and heroism. By reaching deep within himself, Bauby extends his life beyond the limitations of his body by dreaming and creating a work of art. It's a face-off against himself, where the Superego, the butterfly, gains the upper hand over the Ego, the diving bell. Schnabel is a spiritual man, but not a religious one. He believes in the goodness of people, and in their capacity for being patient with their fellow humans and treating them well, just for the sake of it, the way the women in the film give freely of themselves, trying to help Jean-Do.Finally, this film is a simple but powerful lesson about life, not in the moralistic sense, but in the energy it carries. As Bauby says at the beginning of the film, the lesson is that we should experience life, living in the present, learning to recognize and appreciate the small moments of happiness as they come along, and most importantly, to love.