At first, all we see are blurred images and sporadic darkness. Then, we realize that we are looking through the eye of a man who is coming out of a coma. We hear his thoughts, vaguely see the frantic doctors observing him, and realize that he (we) cannot speak. We cannot move.
This first-person viewpoint through the camera lens is as real as it gets. Although it conjures up a sense of claustrophobia, this is the most effective way to create empathy in the moviegoer.
Director Julian Schnabel’s masterpiece is all about empathy – empathy for a man who once had it all as the editor of the French ELLE magazine and then saw it disappear when he suddenly contracted “locked-in syndrome.” Perfectly conscious but completely paralyzed, he can only communicate by blinking once for “yes” and twice for “no.”
The man we cinematically embody is the real life Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by a sincere Mathieu Amalric), who wrote what would have been an un-filmable memoir in 1996 until Schnabel took it into his own hands. Schnabel wisely intersperses flashbacks in the third person of the successful and mobile Bauby throughout the film. Now, we see a self-indulgent man who parades a mistress behind his wife and kids. We observe him with models, set designs, and all the glamour that wrapped around him until locked-in syndrome wrapped around everything.
Later, Bauby is left with nothing but the will of an eye to ask forgiveness from his family, his friends, and himself. He does it one blink at a time. Bauby’s torso is unmoving like a diving bell under water, but his imagination can still flutter like a butterfly.
I have never seen a film like this in my blessed life of movie fascination. We can read all we want about paraplegia, stroke, and paralysis, and we can try our best to imagine the experience.
Director Schnabel puts us right there, giving us the most physical and emotional opportunity to empathize as a viewer. This is one of the most beloved movies I have ever seen.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) *****
Have you seen it? Please feel free to comment and Happy Moviegoing!