We’re all astronauts, encapsulated voyagers peering out through windshields at the vast, perilous universe beyond. From these places inside our heads, we steer our ships, sending out probes as necessary. The command center seems far away from the engines and manifolds, a mind/body dissociation that’s long been a philosophical quandary—the proverbial “ghost in the machine.” How do the two interact?
Such conjecture remains theoretical to all but those like Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose memoir The Diving Bell and The Butterfly was recently dramatized by artist Julian Schnabel. Bauby, the editor of French Elle and a Parisian luminary, suffered a catastrophic stroke at age forty-three. Left speechless and paralyzed except for the motion in his left eye, the world through which he’d moved became only a spectacle beyond his cornea.
Schnabel places the viewer inside Bauby’s condition, so that much of the story is seen through a blinking aperture, accompanied by narrated thoughts. The method separates this film from other stories of the mightily stricken, as there is no escaping his predicament. All must approach the eye that is the camera, peering in to talk, as though spying through a keyhole at some portion of the man they knew. Inside, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) thinks and comments, remembers and reflects, on a life of missed chances. His self-image is of a man in a diving suit, motionless beneath the depths of a shadowy sea.
But that’s not the last image. The broken chrysalis that replaces it is honestly earned by way of those who—for various reasons—reach through that aperture. His therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) devises a means of communication, reciting the alphabet until he blinks to accept a letter. At first, Bauby resists, participating only long enough to say he wishes to die. Remarkably, he’s answered not with compassion, but with outright fury; too many people love him to allow this surrender. He is made contrite, and in the end, not only adopts the method, but also escapes the diving bell through his bold imagination. He even fulfills a book contract he received before his paralysis; 200,000 blinks later: the memoir.
Others come, surprising Bauby with their faithfulness: a comical bon vivant drops in regularly to read aloud—gestures Bauby never dreamed the man capable of. A journalist also visits, one Bauby had surrendered a seat to on a flight that was hijacked, leading to a years-long hostage ordeal. Leaning close, the man whispers the secret to survival, discovered in the dark cell: “hang on to that which is human in you.” Bauby’s father (Max von Sydow), a room-bound invalid, calls to explain that he too is in a prison, and expresses love that transcends what separates them.
Is Bauby saving them? one wonders. Prayers abound. Most devotedly, the mother of his children, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), visits despite his abandonment of her. Schnabel masterfully captures a terrible moment, when Celine must answer a speaker phone call from her replacement. To the horror of all three, no one can translate the blinks for the mistress except Celine. Bauby’s flawed humanity breaks through here, as he must communicate to the woman he loves through the woman he wishes he were able to.
At one point, a devout speech pathologist (Olatz López Garmendia) wants to take him to Lourdes. Not religious, he recalls he’s been there already, reluctantly, with his lover. The flashback shows Bauby walking through the chair-ridden infirm, pushed by nuns, all of whom stare as though he were one of them, as though they know his future. After a fight, he takes a perplexed night-walk through the tacky souvenir district, where behind a window he finds a statue of the glowing Virgin, a replica of one his lover had purchased just that afternoon. Even in memory, he’s unsure what such a thing signifies. All we know is that, ultimately, Bauby finds a way to sing.
“Art is a denial of death,” Schnabel has said of the film’s meaning. But surely that’s because art is born of souls, which do not die, and to which art testifies. All lofty commonplaces aside, if souls die, art dies too—in the diving bell.
Of course, such is a matter of faith—would say the butterfly.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: A.G. Harmon