In late 1995, French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby was thinking about writing an update of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. ‘I did not have time to commit this crime of lèse-majesté,’ Bauby later wrote; for his hubris, he darkly joked, ‘the gods of literature and neurology’ smote him with a fate not unlike that of Edmond Dantès: a massive stroke left Bauby with ‘locked-in syndrome’, paralysing his entire body except his left eye and his mind. Bauby composed a limpid, droll memoir instead – his amanuensis would recite the alphabet and Bauby would blink when she called the correct letter – and died two days after ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ was published in France, at the age of 44.
Julian Schnabel’s adaptation is, like ‘Before Night Falls’, a tender and sensuously sad film, at once empathic and expressionist in its immersion in Bauby’s bathysphere. The movie first places us in the POV of Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) – we even watch from within as his useless right eye is sewn shut – and then unlocks the man’s memories and fantasies, his ecstasies and regrets. (And his dad: the scenes with the incomparable Max Von Sydow’s as Bauby’s father are almost unbearably moving.)
Amid a parade of the gorgeous women in Bauby’s life (Emmanuelle Seigner as his recently abandoned wife, Marie-Josée Croze as his speech therapist), Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski add flourish upon flourish to animate Bauby’s inner world: smearing colours, pulsating focus, extreme close-ups. In fact, the film often seems less a memorial to Bauby than a guided tour of the auteur’s voluptuous aesthetic. But then, the last thing we want from Julian Schnabel is a hint of deference, and the last thing we want from a triumph-over-tragedy narrative is an excess of restraint.