Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”
Crying is something I don’t do terribly often in life, but when it comes to movies, I tend to tear up pretty easily. Sad stories can get me going, but the thing that almost without fail will wallop me emotionally is a moment of goodness, or kindness, or generosity - a gesture of love from a stoic parent, or maybe a choice to help, or forgive, by a onetime, or maybe eternal adversary. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s cry moment - well, the first of them - caught me completely off guard the first time I saw it more than ten years ago, but every time I revisit the film it sort of blasts me with this same overpowering feeling of joy and admiration, over and over again: when Jean-Dominique Bauby decides against all odds to stop pitying himself and write the novel he always intended to, no longer a female-driven reworking of the Count of Monte Cristo but now a memoir about his debilitating condition.
It’s the kind of character epiphany that makes you grateful that you don’t have to suffer the same sort of ordeal that he did in order to realize important truths about your life, both good and bad. But as storytelling, it’s also exactly the kind of art that inspires you the viewer to do the same - to reflect, to appreciate, and to be inspired - which is why then and now it proves to be such a devastating, masterful film.
Directed by Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an adaptation of the book by the real-life French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (played on screen by Mathieu Amalric), who was diagnosed with “locked-in syndrome” after suffering a stroke. The first segment of the film vividly portrays his literal interior life as he awakens to discover that the running conversation in his head only flows one way: the attending physicians cannot hear his responses to their questions because he is completely physically paralyzed, with only a single, blinking eye capable of evidencing his consciousness. Assigned speech and physical therapists, Bauby - nicknamed “Jean-Do” by his friends - slowly, reluctantly begins the effort to regain his speech and dexterity; but after being introduced to a laborious system of communication that allows him to spell out words letter by letter, he makes the virtually unimaginable - and again, deeply inspiring - decision to solicit his book editor for a patient transcriptionist to dictate his experiences for publication.
Although his technique threatens to become (appropriately) claustrophobic, Schnabel brings to life Jean-Do’s physical experiences, and often frustrating intellectual processes, with a visceral intensity that immediately bonds the character and the audience. We watch the long-suffering mother of his children - “not his wife,” he insists - as he looks at her through tears; we see the overbearing authority of his doctors - and later, the compassionate gazes of his therapists - as he struggles to communicate; and we even watch from the inside as a surgeon sews his eyelid shut to prevent the eye from turning septic. Schnabel only relieves the tension of this perspective once Bauby’s friends and acquaintances show up to offer their support and condolences, but by then we feel inextricably linked to that point of view, not just understanding but completely empathetic to his circumstances - trapped inside his body, and unable to escape (or even communicate).
What’s more amazing is how cinematic those first-person scenes are, and the ones that come after, to explore and express his mindset as he dictates his novel, interacts with the world of the able-bodied, and eventually, alleviates his isolation one letter at a time. Schnabel depicts Jean-Do’s diving bell literally - a suit that traps him underwater - as well as the butterfly that personifies his hope, and intellect, which remains unimpeded by disability. But the filmmaker expands that visual metaphor to encompass his new experiences, such as with Claude (Anne Consigny), the patient young woman who translates his blinks into prose, and eventually, embraces him beneath the waves. And then he integrates both the history of the facility where he is staying, and the rich possibilities of his creativity, when immobility and routine threatens to depress him. The ballet dancers and courtesans combing the hallways of the hospital provide an escape for him, yes, but for Schnabel, they serve as a reminder of the enduring and indefatigable power of the human spirit; they’re less figments of his imagination than embodiments of its healing strength.
He is also surrounded by a compelling and eclectic ensemble of women who ultimately mean different things in his life. Where Jean-Do’s speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) scolds him for his initially fatalistic outlook, his devout physical therapist Marie (Olatz López Garmendia) encourages his faith. Claude (Anne Consigny) becomes a new intimate and confidante as she serenely takes down each new passage, following him into his smorgasbord fantasies and imaginary adventures. Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner) unhappily connects a telephone call from his mistress Ines (Agathe de La Fontaine) for which Jean-Do has long waited, but his temporary excitement is leavened by her steadfastness, and the reminder of their shared history via their three children. They collectively represent passion, as well as the liberation he achieves emotionally even though he can’t physically.
Conversely, the men in his life share an experiential solidarity that unfolds as a parallel to his corporeal “incarceration.” He suffers intense guilt after a visit from Roussin, a colleague he traded seats with on a plane that got hijacked and detained - a more literal form of imprisonment. And he struggles to connect via telephone with his boastful, impatient father Papinou (Max Von Sydow), who at 92 is confined to his own apartment and no longer capable of climbing the four flights of stairs to the front door. Their equivocation makes him compassionate to their experiences, and perhaps kinder to his own, realizing both that he will only ever have limited opportunities to spend with these people outside the walls of the hospital, and that the connections they make - measured in time and distance - are more valuable to hold onto than ever.
Finally, there’s the act itself of blinking a novel into existence, a demonstration of determination and resolve so profound that, well, it brings me to tears just to think about. The film shows that it not only gave him purpose, but kept him alive - evidenced by the fact that his body gave out just ten days after it was published. But the stroke and his subsequent affliction forced upon him not only enormous, inescapable changes to his routine and behavior, but a realization that he had, even in enormous success and happiness, failed to fully appreciate the gifts he’d been given in work, companionship and family. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is by any conventional definition “inspirational,” but it’s more than that; it’s truly affecting, not just because it arouses tears both of sadness and joy, heartbreak and elation, but because those reactions reverberate in the viewer’s own life, reminding them that the epiphanies Jean-Do experiences can be shared - and thankfully, without needing to be locked in first.