Director: Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Max von Sydow
Samuel Beckett, the master of bedridden and incapacitated protagonists, would have struggled to conjure the fate of Jean-Dominique Bauby. A former editor of Elle magazine, Bauby was almost completely paralysed by a stroke when he was 43 years old. He was left with a rare condition known as locked-in syndrome: his mind worked, but his body was broken. His only way to communicate was via his left eyelid. With the help of a therapist, he developed a way to laboriously spell out words, blink by blink, letter by letter. Using this method, he semaphored an entire memoir, the bestseller published in 1997 on which this film is based.
In his previous films, the director Julian Schnabel has explored the creative process at work in the face of physical and mental limitations. In Basquiat (1996), he chronicled the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist whose struggle with addiction both hindered and shaped his work. In Before Night Falls (2000), Schnabel adapted a memoir by the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, who suffered persecution and imprisonment. While these films received muted critical acclaim, Schnabel has found his muse in Bauby. The extremes of his predicament and his remarkable response to it have stirred Schnabel’s vision. Schnabel is aided by the dazzling cinematography of Janusz Kaminski and an excellent script by Ron Harwood, which keeps the film anchored in its disturbing reality. The result is beautiful, original and intensely moving.
The film opens in the befuddling and sterile surroundings of a hospital. People come and go, speaking slowly and deliberately, informing the patient (and the viewer) about what has happened. The patient responds: his voice is audible (to the viewer) but he remains unheard. The narration is sardonic, full of wit and irony.
The scene establishes the film’s visual and sensual vocabulary, and traps the viewer in Bauby’s restricted world. It is at least 20 minutes before the perspective changes, and when it does, it is excruciating. Bauby’s right eye is sewn shut to prevent infection. It is a closing in of an already-claustrophobic perspective, a re-enactment and a metaphor for Bauby, whose “I” has already been so horribly hindered.
As the film progresses, Bauby’s worlds of debilitated reality and unfettered fantasy – diving bell and butterfly – develop.
He takes refuge in his memory and his imagination. They are, he says, “the only means of escaping my diving bell”. Hallucinatory scenes of beaches, banquets and mountains mingle with Bauby’s memories of himself as a journalist, a husband, a father and a son. All the time, Bauby’s physical reality looms large, often cutting abruptly to the immobile origins of these fleeting thoughts.
The story’s other thread deals with Bauby’s relationships with his speech therapist, wife, children and friends after his illness. The images from this world are artfully blurred, drenched in colour and frequently beset by the diaphanous flutter of flowing fabrics and hair. Inanimate objects move beautifully and freely, contrasting sharply with the lifelessness of Bauby’s body.
From the scenes with his elderly father to an abortive trip to Lourdes while Bauby is still in good health, fragments of memory balance and highlight the truth about his relationships and the way he has lived his life. While Bauby does not experience regret, the memories show a wrenching awareness of mistakes made, opportunities lost and chances missed.
These layers give the film remarkable richness, poignancy and emotional depth. And, like great poetry, the subject ultimately becomes the creative act itself. The film is one of the finest explorations since Beckett of how and why we create. It lays bare the mind-body connection (and disconnection) in the process and shows, as the great writer once said, “how little one is at one with one’s self”.