The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Before Night Falls
For those of us who have followed Julian Schnabel’s larger-than-life career as an artist for nearly thirty years, watching his new movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a doubly extraordinary experience. It is a film that presents a nightmarish and almost unbearable medical case history that has been handled with humor, a lyrical deftness, and a remarkable absence of sentimentality; and if you have more than a passing sense of Schnabel the person and his work as a painter, your mind is running at the same time on a parallel track, one full of amazement and almost disbelief that, with no apparent training in theater arts or the directing of actors, or even a feeling for photography, he has turned himself into a sometime moviemaker—this is his third film—of such drive and sensitivity. The movie is about a patient’s transformation of himself as he lies in a hospital bed; and it has been made by someone who, with a perhaps related kind of strength, is similarly extending himself.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on the book of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby. The editor of the French fashion magazine Elle, Bauby suffered a stroke at the end of 1995, at forty-three, that left him paralyzed from head to toe and able only to use his mind, to hear from one ear (in a muffled way), to move his head a little (with a huge effort), to grunt out the letters of the alphabet (after considerable therapy), and most crucially to see from his left eye and to blink its lid. A victim of what is known as locked-in syndrome, Bauby learned how to communicate through a collaborative process. As someone read to him letters of the alphabet, he would, through blinking at the letter he needed, spell out words.
When the point of this process became the writing of a book about the experience Bauby was living through and what it touched off in him about other aspects of his life, his condition must have seemed a fraction less unbearable. (He died a few days after his book was published, in 1997.) Although he doesn’t identify himself as a writer, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an astonishing report from so damaged and deprived a state of being that most of us resist imagining what it would be like in such a situation. It is also, unbelievably, a wry, tender, and beautifully measured piece of writing.
Knowing how he wrote, a reader can’t help but linger with Bauby’s every phrase. He calls his left eye “the only window to my cell,” and, in one of many lines that are both felicitous and reverberant, sees the sick as “castaways on the shores of loneliness.” He turns over the recent and distant past—“I cultivate the art of simmering memories”—and especially likes to think about food and eating experiences, briskly noting, “If it’s a restaurant, no …