When a friend visits Jean-Dominique Bauby in his hospital room, he relays the latest gossip from Paris: "Jean-Dominique is a vegetable." Bauby wonders what sort of vegetable he has become: "A carrot? A pickle?" His friend doesn't hear these floral ponderings, but from the view inside Bauby's head, it's clear that he's anything but a spud. Which is not to say he isn't in a pickle. Bauby was once the editor of French Elle magazine, but in his early forties, he suffered a massive stroke that left him with a rare condition known as "locked-in syndrome." It is aptly if cruelly named -- his mind, as active as ever, is like a caged bird, trapped within an immobile, completely paralyzed body. He is able to blink his eyes, which becomes his only means of communicating with the outside world.
Specifically, he has a left eyelid. To prevent infection, his right eye is sewn shut in a gruesome scene early in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the glorious and unflinching film based on Bauby's memoir Le Scaphandre et le Papillon. The scene is especially blood-curdling because, like much of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, it is seen from within, from the point of view of the owner of that unlucky eye. Director Julian Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood lock the viewer of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly into Bauby's small prison, looking out through the same small window, with only Bauby's overactive mind as companion. But what a funny, lively, imaginative companion he turns out to be. And he has lovely visitors: his patient, doting ex Celine (Emmanuelle Siegner), the mother of his three children and a woman who clearly still loves him; his speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), and eventually, Claude (Anne Consigny), the assistant who takes the dictation of his left eye and helps him write his book. It is some time in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly before the film escapes the perspective of that liminal eye, and gives us a full view of Bauby and the world outside his mind.
That world is greatly diminished, but it was once quite full. Bauby was (and in his mind at least remains) an unapologetic sybarite, enjoying a life of glamour, good food, fast cars, and beautiful women. The butterfly is Bauby's metaphor for his airy, flitting, high-flying mind -- a mind that is astonishingly liberated by the loss of its earthly container, and all those earthly pleasures. It would be trite to describe The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as a film about the human spirit triumphing over adversity. More accurately, it is about the soul breaking free of its constraints -- constraints imposed from without and within. As Bauby comes to see, he is not the only person imprisoned by circumstance, or an unwilling body, or by self-forged shackles, nor is his current state entirely new -- it's different from his old life, but not less free.
The butterfly is an apt metaphor for Schnabel's film, with the filmmaker finding his own freedom in Bauby's imaginative flights of fancy. Even when he is at his most self-pitying, Bauby's words are comical, witty, ironic, and poignant, roaming freely across the full range of human emotion and human experience, free-associating through memory and desire, fantasy and invention. The richness of his inner life makes The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a film that is not, ultimately, sad or depressing, but rather wise, lyrical, moving, and joyful. In giving substance and reality to the wanderings of the mind's eye, Schnabel, working with the ingenious cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, creates a visual world rich in metaphor and spirit, looping freely through time and space, unconstrained by the fetters of plot and straightforward narrative. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is, not surprisingly, dreamlike in its logic as it weaves a tangle of neuronal threads, knots, and loose ends into a vibrant, shimmering, luminous cloth of transcendent and subtle beauty.