A Visual Knockout

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007) is a biographical drama film based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir of the same name. It starred actor Mathieu Amalric as Bauby.

 
 

The film is a visual knockout. Schnabel draws on Bauby’s fantasies to blast moviegoers with a kaleidoscope of dreamy images — some subtle, some banging loud — and an array of captivating music and sounds. Critically acclaimed, the film received many awards and nominations including the Best Director Prize at Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film & Best Director, as well as 4 Academy Award nominations.It would go on to win numerous international awards, including a BAFTA for adapted screenplay, and Golden Globes for best foreign language film and best director.

Although made in France with a French-speaking cast, the film was originally to be produced by the American company Universal Studios, and the screenplay was originally in English, with Johnny Depp slated to star as Bauby. According to the screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, the choice of Julian Schnabel as director was recommended by Depp. Universal subsequently withdrew, and Pathé took up the project two years later. Depp dropped the project due to scheduling conflicts with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. (Gore Verbinski, 2007) Schnabel remained as director. The film was eventually produced by Pathé and France 3 Cinéma, in association with Banque Populaire Images 7 and the American Kennedy/Marshall Company, and in participation with Canal+ and Ciné Cinémas.

Painter-director Julian Schnabel said his influence for the film was drawn from personal experience:
“My father got sick and he was dying. He was terrified of death and had never been sick in his life. So he was in this bed at my house, he was staying with me, and this script arrived for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. As my father was dying, I read Ron Harwood’s script. It gave me a bunch of parameters that would make a film have a totally different structure. As a painter, as someone who doesn’t want to make a painting that looks like the last one I made, I thought it was a really good palette. So personally and artistically these things all came together.”

The script written for the film has been criticized by Bauby’s closest circle of friends as not faithful to events and biased in favor of his ex-partner. His late-life partner Florence Ben Sadoun claims to have been a faithful companion, visiting him frequently at Berck-sur-Mer, the hospital where he lived during his final days. Bauby notes her visits in his memoir. Sylvie de la Rochefoucauld also claims to have visited him frequently at the hospital.

While Bauby was still alive, French director Jean-Jacques Beineix made a 25-minute film, Assigné à résidence (or House Arrest), that captured Bauby in his paralysed state, and the process of the book’s composition

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About 200,000 Blinks

French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby photographed by Jeanloup Sieff, 1996

 
 

On 8 December 1995 at the age of 43, Jean-Dominique Bauby (author and editor of the French fashion magazine ELLE), suffered a massive stroke and lapsed into a coma. When he woke up twenty days later, he found he was entirely speechless; he could only blink his left eyelid. Called locked-in syndrome, this is a condition wherein the mental faculties remain intact but most of the body is paralyzed. In Bauby’s case his mouth, arms, and legs were paralyzed, and he lost 27 kilograms (60 lb) in the first 20 weeks after his stroke.

Despite his condition, he wrote the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking when the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again using a system called partner-assisted scanning. Bauby composed and edited the book entirely in his head, and dictated it one letter at a time. To make dictation more efficient, Bauby’s interlocutor, Claude Mendibil, repeatedly recited a French language frequency-ordered alphabet (E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L, etc.), until Bauby blinked to choose the next letter.The book took about 200,000 blinks to write and an average word took approximately two minutes. The book also chronicles everyday events for a person with locked-in syndrome.

The French edition of the book was published in France on 7 March 1997. Bauby died suddenly from pneumonia ten days after the publication of his book, and is buried in a family grave at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) describes what his life is like after suffering a massive stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome. It also details what his life was like before the stroke. The evocative title comes from Bauby’s notion that while his body was submerged and weighted down — impossible to move — his imagination and memory were still free and as light as a butterfly’s wings: “My cocoon becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.”