Le Scaphandre et le Papillon

Diving Deep

May 29, 2007By Tom RidgwayFilm

Paris at the end of May, when the whole cinema world is living it up in Cannes, is a feast for film lovers. Piggybacking on the free publicity the films get simply by being shown at the festival – with TV specials and reports on every news bulletin – some Cannes entrants are released immediately in France. Among the May and June releases is Julian Schnabel’s La Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). This moving, beautifully made and intelligent tearjerker (bring your hankies) with a daring aesthetic was given a 20-minute standing ovation (and Schnabel the best director prize) at this year’s festival.

La Scaphandre is based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle, who in 1997 had a stroke that left him completely paralyzed, apart from his right eye. After a period in a coma he awoke and, with the help of a speech therapist and a secretary, managed to laboriously write a book describing his condition: The secretary would recite the letters of the alphabet and he would wink when she said the correct one. Published just 10 days before Bauby died, the book went on to become a best seller around the world.

Schnabel daringly films the first third entirely from Bauby’s point of view, opening the film at the moment when he wakes up, giving us blurred images (Bauby can’t focus at first because his left eye is too damaged) with a limited field of vision (he can’t turn his head to follow people’s movements). These images are accompanied by a voiceover of his thoughts. He believes he is speaking, but no one reacts, since they can’t hear him. As played by Mathieu Almaric (whom we don’t actually see for around 25 minutes), the moment when Bauby realizes that he is unable to communicate is terrifying. You get a real sense of the panic he must have felt as he understood his situation.

Schnabel takes his visual cues from Bauby’s book and puts Almaric in a deep-sea diving suit and films him screaming silently as he sinks ever deeper. The two visual strategies create a palpable sense of claustrophobia that works; it’s perhaps the most frightening thing I’ve seen on screen for a long time.

Bauby was suffering from what is known as “locked-in syndrome” and the film almost excluvisely locks us in to Bauby’s point of view. His relationships – with his father, the mother of his children and his mistress – are dealt with in flashbacks, memories Bauby re-creates to comfort him in his almost hermetically sealed mental world.

While there are some moments of painterly pretension (Schnabel can’t help himself), it’s easy to forgive him because Le Scaphandre et le Papillon is so intelligently thought through. Helped by fantastic cinematography from Spielberg favorite Janusz Kaminski, it moves far beyond the simplistic tearjerker it could so easily have been, allowing us to understand how Bauby was forced to reach deep inside himself and letting us share the fear and determination he felt and expressed.

The result is a film about that’s as much about life as death. It forces us to see that, in a godless world, art – whether a book or a film – is the only way we can truly create life after death.


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