Thursday, February 14, 2008


Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny
Director: Julian Schnabel
Runtime: 112 min.
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Drama, Biopic

It was a Saturday morning, way back in ’90 when I read this story about a man, rendered blind due to cataracts, and his horse as they sold milk bottles around town. I still remember that morning vividly – Saturday was a holiday down at school and after reading the story, I got down to helping mother fix the bed. All of a sudden tears started flowing down my eyes. Mother came down rushing round the bed wondering what the matter was. I was just plain afraid of blindness, and I had this weird notion I might go blind one day. It was for me the most dreadful situation to be in, forever imprisoned into darkness. Until I read about the death of one Jean-Dominique Bauby, seven years later, and his locked-in syndrome.
Bauby was an editor for Elle, and a greatly known name in Paris. On December 8, 1995 he suffered a massive stroke, and went into coma for twenty days. When he woke up, it was announced he was now a patient of that rarest of paralysis, the locked-in syndrome. In that condition the patient is unable to move none of the voluntary muscles in the body, save the ones concerning the eye movements. A man nailed inside a coffin box, and buried twenty feet under, at least as his voice to cry out in despair. In here, he’s locked in with his feelings. He is perfectly normal, in every respect, but cannot share himself. It is horrifying. Bauby, if things could get any worse, even had the muscles in his right eye out of service. It had to be sewn, and then there was only one eye left.
A lesser man would have begged for mercy killing, he instead wrote his biography – Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) – for he still had two parts that weren’t paralyzed – his imagination and his memory. You might wonder how. By blinking his eye, letter by letter, word by word. Inspiring might be an easy word, but I doesn’t quite describe the lives of a Tenzing Norgay or a Sir Edmund Hillary or a Roald Amundsen in their entirety.
Based on that book, Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon tells Jean-Dominique Bauby’s story.
But how does one involve the audience, convey them his situation and take them on a ride through his imagination. And to avoid those mine holes, filled with the conventional sentiment-extracting tricks, which usually plague films of these mini-genre. Jules Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls), teams up with the genius of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Munich) and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), charges up his imagination into a rapturous celebration of the human spirit, and ends up creating an emotional experience in this technical tour-de-force that would remain unsurpassed all of 2007, and a good part into 2008. Inspirational turns out to be too small a word for the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, and this film. This is superhuman, serious.
It opens with us inside Bauby eyes, seeing what he’s seeing, blinking when he’s blinking. Everyone walks up to him and talks, and we listen to his inner voice desperately seeking to be heard. We see as his right eye is injected with local anesthesia, and is sewn. It isn’t a gimmick, you know, as such things easily could be. It puts us squarely in the shoes of Bauby, claustrophobia and horror engulfing us. And then, at an opportune moment, it breaks out showing the man outside. We are introduced to new people in his nurses, each of them so good you want to cry out loud. We meet his family, and we visit flashbacks. It is all random, interlaced with imagination, and all so sublimely beautiful, and heartrending. We visit a heartwarming meeting between him and his father (Max von Sydow), in the past. His father is 92 years old, and is confined to his own apartment. In a way, he could understand most what his son is feeling. And here the movie elevates the horror to an altogether different level, beyond that residing inside Bauby. It is outside, and shared by the ones who love him the most. They talk to him, but all they see is one wide open eye. For a father it is the most terrible of condition, to talk to his son and not know what he is feeling inside. The doctors say he understands everything, but in that moment you want the person to react. Bauby doesn’t, Bauby cannot. It is horrifying to be locked inside oneself, but I guess, it is equally horrifying for loved ones to get locked outside.
If I have been painting a gloomy picture till now, I couldn’t have been any farther from the truth as far as this motion picture is concerned. There’re the most beautiful images, and bright colors flush into the palette of Kaminski. It isn’t that we’re subjected to obligatory ‘beautiful’ scenery footage; it is the way Schnabel threads it all together into that imagination of Bauby. He is a normal person, as in, he has loads of unlikable characteristics in him. His perspective has changed though, and he repents for his life. He hasn’t loved the women back who loved him, he hasn’t shared time with his children, he has lived for himself. The women in his life used to be anorexic models who could pass for males, and while they were at it, could also pass for a cold and distant object. Now, he is surrounded by his dutiful wife, his nurse who has sacrificed herself for him, and an angel who would wait patiently with him all day long to write his book, letter by letter. In a way, he was locked in too. Through him, Schnabel doesn’t merely create a biopic of Bauby, he creates the biopic of human spirit.
There’s strange irony here as only fate can supply – Bauby, prior to the stroke, had a contract to write a book for the same company that published his memoir. The book was to be a modern-day adaptation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. It is probably for the first time the locked-in syndrome has been discussed in literature; Monsieur Noirtier, father to the vile Monsieur De Villefort, is only able to communicate with his servant and his granddaughter. I was also reminded of the 2004 Best foreign language film Academy award winner The Sea Inside, Spanish/Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar powerhouse on the life of Ramón Sampedro who wished to die at the pointless nature of his existence. Ramón was a cheerful fisherman, and a poet too, and it was just a cruel stroke of fate that rendered him quadriplegic. But what was most disturbing about the film was how such a charismatic man wanted to end his life. Here is a man barely able to do anything other than to blink his left eye. He does wish to die one time, and how can one cannot in such a situation, but there is a great sequence between his nurse Henriette Durand, and Bauby. Look at this sequence for it is a sample why this film is such a magnificent creation. This is a great film, and one butterfly that has soared far, far away from its diving bell, into the lofty realms of human imagination.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", but the movie I'd rather see is "My Stroke of Insight", which is the amazing bestselling book by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. It is an incredible story and there's a happy ending. She was a 37 year old Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke in the left half of her brain. The story is about how she fully recovered, what she learned and experienced, and it teaches a lot about how to live a better life. Her TEDTalk at TED dot com is fantastic too. It's been spread online millions of times and you'll see why!