The Mind’s Eye: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

illustration by Tom Ralston

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly begins when Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, awakens. Off-screen, he’s suffered a brainstem stroke that left him comatose; when he rouses, he finds himself paralyzed except for the movements of his left eye, a condition known as locked-in syndrome. There is no time for sentimentality. Perhaps his doctors and nurses understand that acknowledging Bauby’s enormous setbacks could sink him forever. He is alive and awake, and their job is to keep him present as long as possible. Bauby is delivered a diagnosis, and presented with a team of coaches who can train him to use his remaining faculties—his brain, his eye, perhaps someday, his mouth and throat.

This is how Bauby is taught to speak to the world: an interlocutor reads aloud the letters of the French alphabet in order of most frequent use, and by blinking, Bauby indicates a letter in order to spell a word that will form a sentence and then a thought. It is a painstaking process. We are all accustomed to the speed of thoughts—how quickly they skim along internally, understood but barely articulate; how reflexively we turn them into words, perhaps inadequate ones, but easily grasped and expressed by tongue or hand. Bauby’s new world demands attention and intention; it denies him the carelessness that allowed him to propel so quickly through his previous life. 

For Bauby (called familiarly “Jean-Do”), the world has shrunk to the parameters of one monoscopic eyeball. Jean-Do’s left eye is his frame, his tongue, his paintbrush. It is how he meets the world and how he colors it. To make us understand his physical limitations, the camera clings insistently to Bauby’s point of view: a Dutch angle, that canted visual perspective on the world, is now his default. It conveys the slackness of his ragdoll body and the cruel reversals of his fortune; it also demonstrates how Bauby’s consciousness comprises the breadth of this story. Caretakers and friends step into frame and up close to his working eye in order to communicate with him. They recede when tears cloud his vision, or when his own thoughts wander away. We are presented, indirectly, with a clash of perspectives—that of the afflicted versus the able-bodied, the sick man and those who want to be present but struggle to accommodate his new condition.

Bauby is treated at the Hôpital maritime de Berck, at the lip of the English Channel and down the road from Dunkirk and Calais—a historical destination for tubercular patients, a terminal place of contemplation and retreat. His first visitor is unexpected. Not a friend or relative, but a stranger with a fated connection. Years before, Jean-Do gave up an airplane seat so Roussin (played by the pale-eyed Danish-French actor Niels Arestrup) could catch a connecting flight to Hong Kong. But what seemed like luck for Roussin was the beginning of lengthy misfortune. The plane was hijacked and rerouted to Beirut, and Roussin was held hostage in a small cell for four years. 

As Roussin approaches, Jean-Do, mute and immobile, thinks frantically about what he owes this man—an unreturned phone call that we sense was avoided out of Jean-Do’s anxiety or guilt, but also, somehow, four years of pain and torment. It’s as if, out of a fairy tale, they had exchanged lives, and now Roussin has returned to collect on a debt. But Roussin has not come to gloat or to punish; instead, he bestows grace. He understands Bauby’s condition and he has come to supply a remedy. During his captivity, Roussin says he recited lists of the Grand Bordeaux wines bottled in the year 1855 to save his sanity, a very French way to survive an undetermined period of imprisonment and torture. But it shows Bauby how the mind can liberate, not just through flights of fancy but through steady and applied focus.

“Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed. My imagination, and my memory,” Jean-Do realizes, and this is where The Diving Bell and the Butterfly finds its animating energy, for Bauby was an extraordinary glutton for life, a gourmande for heightened experience. Once liberated, his mind carries us aloft on the timeline of his butterfly pleasures and fantasies. We peep cameos appropriate to his profession—the starrier, moneyed world of fashion in the 1990s, a throwaway mixture of couturier, rock star, photographer, and supermodel. And we eavesdrop upon elliptical glimpses of any human’s most treasured and intimate times: a lover’s long hair lifted by blowing wind in a top-down convertible. The garish lights of a tourist trinket shop, and the red hued light of a cheap hotel. Children who cling to him because he’s not present enough. Historical figures, who lived a century earlier, skip through the hospital alongside Jean-Do’s wheelchair, perhaps because, like Jean-Do, they are outside of time and thus feel like contemporaries—Bauby is alive, but we sense he is also on his way to becoming an ancestor. Perhaps it’s a matter of course that Julian Schnabel’s filmic images are astonishing (realized here by frequent Spielberg collaborator, DP Janusz Kamiński); but it’s the intense subjectivity and specificity of Bauby’s point of view that touches us. He shows us a man seducing and retreating from women, and the tender ways men can talk to one another.

Schnabel, painter of large scale canvases, totemic figure of the ‘80s art boom, is known for his Gauginesque tendencies—the sarongs and the cigars, the rococo real estate holdings, the fashionable friends, exotic wives and plentiful children. According to those who have made a study, Schnabel can be grandiose or self-important; but one might posit these traits are essential for an artist—a cri de coeur required in order to be

As a filmmaker, he is astonishingly porous, and forthcoming with his own foibles (unless I am wrong to suppose that Bauby is among Schnabel’s filmic stand-ins). For Schnabel has made a film oeuvre that chronicles the Artist—from Basquiat to Reinaldo Areinas to Vincent Van Gogh—and his films’ concerns feel personal: the vanity, the frivolity, the society, the diversions, and most importantly the vocation of the arts. Art (for Bauby, this means not only the faddish modes of high fashion but the connected cultural pleasures he peruses in life and collects in his magazine’s and his life’s pages) is colorful and diverting, rewarding and punishing. It is a calling and a purpose. Defiance in the face of an uncertain present and the terminal condition of living.

In his besieged condition, Bauby has become like a man encased in a diving bell, experiencing life in a mediated chamber that allows him to travel from one dimension to the next, but which renders him a spectator. At first, Bauby can’t understand how to use his remaining energy when all communication is slowed down to this particulate level. What messages are so sustained and significant that he will spend minutes or hours to indicate them? The film does not pose an existential question about the cause or meaning of Bauby’s condition, but Bauby himself provides an answer, or at least a solution. Before his illness, Bauby had proposed to write a feminist version of The Count of Monte Cristo, that page-turning narrative of imprisonment, freedom and revenge. Now, he has his speech therapist call his editor to propose a new project: he will write himself free of his confinement—a memoir of life before and during the captivity of his locked-in syndrome. 


Something about the foxiness of his eyes, the sinister music of the accent—in English, the actor Mathieu Amalric often assumes the form of a criminal mastermind (Quantum of Solace) or figure of subterfuge (Munich). In French, he is multi-valenced: merry, mischievous, toxic, intellectual, angry. Before Diving Bell, Amalric acted in the films of Arnaud Desplechin, which formed the backbone of his craft and the colors of his artistic persona. Desplechin uses Amalric’s edgy intelligence to set every relationship on an angle and keep them humming with unpredictability. An Amalric character is never apologetic or pleasing—the actor’s prominent, coal-dark eyes are affable but dangerous, charmed, brightly burning as if he can and will turn upon you if provoked. Brainy, troubled, transgressive, sometimes addicted, thwarted and thwarting, with some kind of tractor-beam allure to the women in his life: Amalric is a thousand-faced die that we turn over and over without refinding the same face. We can suppose Schnabel chose the actor for all his edges.

For Diving Bell is not a character study of one man, but of the dissonant personae contained within one person. We find different sides of Jean-Do within each relationship, and he is kaleidoscopic enough to have had many varieties of intimacy. How wonderful we can join him to visit stentorian Max von Sydow, playing Bauby’s father. Humbled by age and a deteriorating mind, he too is trapped—an old man unable to climb up and down four flights of his Parisian apartment, imprisoned by his choices as a younger man, or of inherited real estate. 

A tender caretaker, Jean-Do gently scrapes the beard from his father’s untidy face, but he also ranges around the apartment without lingering long enough to be overwhelmed by emotion. It’s von Sydow who is sentimental—a lovely turn for an actor who often depicts rage or coldness. The shape of the actor informs the shape of his dilemmas, the emotions he conveys to us. And when von Sydow, that solemn column of impassive dignity, crumples into a pitiable figure, we recognize that in the end, we are all subject to the indignities of the body and of old age. 

More often, Bauby is surrounded by women. His inner monologue delights at the clutch of beauties who attend him at the hospital, including a voluptuous physical therapist played by Schabel’s then-wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia, and his speech therapist, the wonderful French Canadian actress Marie-Josee Croze. The publishing house assistant who takes down Bauby’s fluttered dictation is played by Anne Consigny, who played Amalric’s estranged sister in Un Conte de Noel the following year. Emmanuelle Seigner plays a fictionalized version of Bauby’s estranged wife, who is forced to serve as intermediary between locked-in Bauby and an absent mistress who won’t visit in person and calls on the hospital phone. Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood reshaped the nature of these intimate relationships for dramatic purposes. There is an unspoken but palpable sense of overlapping concerns and relationships that play across the screen. A sense of rewriting history. Bauby, a man of energy, drive, and charm, seems to have endlessly slipped free of ties and obligations. And the movie drawn from his memoir becomes a memorialization of what he loved, and of what the filmmakers love, in life. 

But most importantly, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is about the possibility of redemption. As a healthy man, Bauby is coaxed by his mistress into a dirty weekend in the pilgrimage town of Lourdes. It’s a place where the hobbled and wheelchair-bound travel to bathe in blessed waters, where strings of crutches and canes are hung on telephone wires over the streets to indicate the miraculously healed who have walked away. In memory, Bauby arrives at Lourdes arguing with his girlfriend over her impulse to buy a statue of the Virgin Mary. She finds comfort in the statue while he suspects fraud; they leave the town seeing their differences and knowing the relationship is ruptured. As an ailing patient, Bauby is bemused when a priest (the same actor who sells the tourist shop Madonna earlier) proposes another visit to Lourdes to ask for intervention for his withered body. We have the sense that Bauby’s life, all of our lives, present possibilities for healing and for resolution; hopefully we take advantage of the grace extended to us. The great triumph of Bauby’s last days is how he manages to transcend physical impossibility in order to note down the joys and regrets of his days. And by keeping us insistently within Bauby’s point of view, inside the diving bell, Schnabel reminds us of the range of living and feeling still available to us, if we extend ourselves.