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'The Diving Bell And The Butterfly' Tells True Story of Stroke-Stricken French Journalist


A best-selling French memoir written by a hospitalized stroke victim is the latest subject for American artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel and the result won him best director at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. As audiences in the United States get their first chance to see the film, Alan Silverman has this look at The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.

The doctor says "Now try saying your name" and Jean-Dominique Bauby responds. At least he thinks he has, but the stroke has left him paralyzed with no ability to speak. In fact, the only thing he can move is his left eye. Gradually it dawns on the patient and the medical staff that he has what is now known as "locked-in syndrome:" an active, clear mind, but an inability to communicate. However, Bauby, a journalist and editor of the French Elle magazine, is determined to be heard; and a dedicated speech therapist helps him find a way.

She recites the alphabet and he blinks when she says the letter he wants. Letter by letter, the words come together. It is exhausting and painstaking, but after long months of work, he writes the slim volume detailing his experiences and inner thoughts. Two days after the book was published in 1997, "Jean-Do" Bauby died.

Julian Schnabel is best-known for his energetic and bold paintings that can confront and challenge viewers; however for this, his third film, Schnabel says he needed to draw the audience into Bauby's "locked-in" world.

"One thing that Jean-Dominique Bauby said that I found extremely helpful to me as director is 'swimming up from the mist of a coma, you never get the luxury of having your dreams evaporate.' Then you start thinking about 'what is reality? What is consciousness?' I really think for this man there was no separation," and my adult ambitions." writes Bauby; and Schnabel says he chose to film from the author's point of view, seeing the world through and communicating only with his one good eye.

"We're telling a story about his imagination and his memory and we're seeing the things because I'm basically illustrating what he is talking about," Schnabel explains. "His imagination and his memory freed him from his 'diving bell.' "

French actor-director Mathieu Amalric stars as Jean-Do Bauby. He says much of the script comes directly from the memoir; but even when he improvised some of the inner dialogue, the book and people with first-hand knowledge of the facts helped keep it real.

"As we shot in the real hospital, some members of the medical crew took care of Jean-Do 10 years previously," he explains. "Some actors in the film are, in fact, therapists that really took care of Jean-Do, so I would always ask them if I was believable. 'How did he put his hand? How much could he move his head? Which muscle could he move?' Things like that. They were really my guide."

Emmanuelle Seigner plays Bauby's lover Celine and the mother of their children. A former model, she worked with the real Jean-Do Bauby before his stroke.

"I knew Jean-Dominique Bauby at that time because I was very often doing French Elle and he had a great sense of humor," she explains, "so for me it was not surprising that Mathieu did that. I think he did great because it made the movie lighter and more interesting."

"He's never self-pitying. He's angry. He gets very angry about it, but he's very often amused by it," adds Ronald Harwood, who adapted the memoir for the film's script and the Oscar-winning screenwriter. He says the author's optimism and good humor are at the heart of the story.

"This is about survival and triumph and I wanted to make it so positive. It is very difficult. I know some people come out saying 'God, it's so depressing;' but I don't think it's depressing. I think it's an amazing achievement," Harwood says.

"I've decided to stop pitying myself," writes Jean-Dominique Bauby. "Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed. My imagination and my memory."

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly also features Max von Sydow as Bauby's aging father. Marie-Josee Croze and Anne Consigny play the speech therapist and very patient assistant who work with Bauby to, blink by blink, letter by letter, transcribe his thoughts. The film was shot at many of the locations where the actual story took place; the cinematography is by Polish-born, two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski.