The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 114 mins, rated MA, opening in cinemas 14 February 2008


(This is my review as  published in the February 2008 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

When Cézanne said of Monet that he was "just an eye - but what an eye," he was using a powerful metaphor. But imagine if it were not a figure of speech. Imagine a person who was, in fact, just an eye.

This – or something close to it – was true of the writer Jean-Dominique Bauby. In his early 40s, while editor of French Elle magazine, Bauby suffered a stroke and became almost entirely paralysed. After spending some time in a coma, he regained consciousness, to find that he could move only one eyelid, and had no way of communicating with his carers. His condition is known as “locked-in syndrome.” This film is his story.

His memoir was first published in book form as Le Scaphandre et le papillon (Les Editions Robert Laffont, 1997). Remarkably, Bauby wrote it – or rather dictated it – one letter at a time, by blinking his eyelid. Therapists had developed a new alphabetical order, based on the frequency of occurrence of each letter of the alphabet, and Bauby had to blink when the correct letter was read aloud. Using this method, he took one year and two months to complete the book.

Visual artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, 1996, Before Night Falls, 2000) has taken some liberties with the text, altering a number of characters and changing some of the facts for dramatic or artistic effect. For example, Bauby didn’t drive a convertible, but Schnabel put him in a convertible because he “wanted to see Paris. I wanted to see the trees.”

It is not surprising that Schnabel was attracted to the project. Bauby was a working writer when he had his stroke, but in writing his memoir he became a great writer – an artist. This film records that journey, but not in documentary form. This is more a philosophical journey. Schnabel believes what Bauby was saying in his book was this: “When I was healthy, I wasn’t alive, I wasn’t there, I was quite superficial. But when I came back, le point de vue du papillon (the butterfly’s point of view), I was reborn just as a I”.

Schnabel, the artist, has created a film that is a feast for the eye. From the earliest scenes when Bauby wakes from his coma, we know that this film will be visually inventive. The camera takes Bauby’s viewpoint, we see only what he sees, and we drift in and out of consciousness with him. In a scene where Bauby has his eye sewn up, Schnabel put latex on the camera lens, then sewed it up. The effect is terrifying. For other scenes, he used a swing-and-tilt lens, which meant that part of the image is in-focus and part is out-of-focus. Again, this helps us experience Bauby’s limited physical world.

Schnabel uses water and ice, and cool watery blues and greens, to great effect throughout the film. The opening and closing credits are works of art in their own right. Schnabel used real x-rays, which he found in a building that was just 100 metres away from Bauby’s actual hospital (much of the film was shot on location at the Berck Maritime Hospital).

The great cast of mostly French actors, is led by Mathieu Amalric (Munich, La Moustache) playing Bauby. It’s an extraordinary performance as two people: the bright and breezy writer, editor, husband, lover and father, and the paralysed philosopher. There’s also Emmanuelle Seigner (La Vie en Rose, Frantic) and Marie-Josée Croze (Munich, The Barbarian Invasions). And Max von Sydow is heartbreakingly good as Bauby’s father, himself “locked-in” by age and ill health, who weeps when he telephones his son and realises that his son can’t answer back.

An eclectic soundtrack features music from the films The 400 Blows, and Lolita, and from U2 and Tom Waits. But it is the lovely French ballad La Mer that captures precisely the sheer beauty and mystery of this journey of the mind and spirit.