Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (2007) dir. Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Marie-Josée Croze, Emmanuelle Seigner, Max von Sydow
“Le Scaphandre et le Papillon” aka “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a fabulous film about former editor of “ELLE”, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was rendered paralyzed from a tragic brain aneurism, and whose only way of communicating was through one blinking eye. The film premiered at Cannes earlier this year and has recently made its North American debut, here at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Through a fractured point of view we are behind the eyes of Jean-Dominique Bauby who has suddenly woken up in a hospital room and realized he is completely paralyzed. We can see the doctors and nurses trying to communicate, but Jean-Do can’t respond. He is told he suffered a brain aneurism and will now have to live the rest of his life completely paralyzed. The lovely nurses slowly teach Jean how to communicate by blinking his one eye. They help Jean spell out each word by reading aloud the letters in the alphabet in order of their most popular usage – ie. E, S, A, R, I etc. By blinking at each letter Jean can spell out his thoughts.
Before the aneurism Jean was contracted with his publisher to write a book. He boldly honours that agreemeent and takes on the gargantuan task of writing a novel, which gives him the joie de vivre to carry on with life despite his disability. But even with his affliction he can’t escape the troubles of his past life. Jean still has trouble communicating with his father (Max Von Sydow), and his mistress has stayed in the picture which forces Jean to reconcile his secret/cheating life with his family.
The details of the rehabilitation and the therapy he receives is documented with procedural precision. I was reminded of the scientific research the Odones go through in the film “Lorenzo’s Oil”. If we understand the tremendous effort and dedication it takes Jean-Do to create even one word, the achievement of writing an entire novel with one blinking eye becomes that much more extraordinary.
Schnabel employs Steven Spielberg’s DOP Janusz Kaminsky to photograph his vision of Jean’s new life. And together they create a well thought out visual arc. In the opening scenes in the hospital we see the world through Jean-Do’s two eyes. Since one eye is infected the view is fractured and warped. When his right eye is sewed shut (a squirm-inducing scene we see in a large macro close-up), suddenly his vision becomes clearer. With only one camera angle at his disposal Schnabel manages to sustain the story and the drama and create the character of Jean-Do without ever seeing him. We are helped by hearing Jean-Do’s inner thoughts read out to us as humourous voiceover. Schnabel doesn’t go outside this point of view until the second act and he chooses the just right moment to enter this world. It’s a wonderful scene which kicks the film into another gear. And with fine editing, Schnabel cleverly contrasts Jean’s vivid and lush memories of before the accident with the cold, quiet and clausterphobic life of being ‘locked-in’.
I was surprised to see Hollywood blockbuster-makers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall were the producers of the film. It was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Pianist”, Ronald Harwood and, as mentioned shot by the great “Janusz Kaminsky”. The film certainly has a Hollywood feel to it, but also with a pleasant mixture of Schnabel’s uniquely creative artistic sensibilities. The influences of both schools of filmmaking are evident and they mash well together.
The film is Oscar-worthy on the technical aspects and the performances. Don’t be surprised if we see this garner some major hardware come next February. Not only is the film about a physically-challenged person, which always impresses voters, but it’s a both tragic and feel-good and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit storytelling.
Please check out this remarkably beautiful trailer sans subtitles though: