The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

If Hegel is right and the philosophy of a generation is its thought contained, then its art is its conscience conveyed. Where life obscures, art has the potential to peel away the unnecessary, permitting us to feel what routine and repetition have numbed us to. In tactile artifacts of colour and cadence, art can reveal what reality has hidden and open us up to the affective. Chesterton warned of the potential for madness in the philosopher who hopes to cross the infinite and squeeze the heavens into his own head. The artist however, he said, recognises well his own limits, yearning merely to raise his own head into the heavens. It is the artist who seeks the transcendent without the impossible intention of taming it. In good art, we may witness traces of this pursuit. In great art, we are impelled to feel this momentum ourselves. French director Julian Schnabel, in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, has crafted a film that enables us to feel the heartache and hope of the human spirit.

Based on the similarly-titled memoir, the film depicts the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French fashion magazine editor. Played persuasively by Mathieu Amalric, Bauby falls hard from the coruscating heights of a disencumbered, wanton existence when he experiences a stroke and becomes paralysed by what is known as ‘locked in syndrome’. This bizarre condition renders Bauby unable to move or speak and only able to communicate through blinking his left eye. With such a delicate subject matter, it is easy to imagine its mishandling by other directors. Schnabel, however, is deft and apollonian, offering an experience that is memorable and not manipulative.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the third film from Schnabel, and also his third film with a strong biographical bent. Before filmmaking, Schnabel was a painter and sculptor, and it seems hard to deny that his work shows an obvious impetus to examine the relationship between the artist and his craft. Arguably, the tragic story of Bauby has granted him an even greater canvas to work with and Schnabel here probes deeper, more fundamental issues that are universal to us all. This is perhaps well demonstrated in how the film is shot. In the opening frames of the movie, we are committed to Bauby’s first person perspective. We are not a floating eye; we are not distant, cool observers. Bauby’s predicament is ours. We must endure the limited viewpoint and watch and listen to the slow process of rehabilitation. It is not until almost forty minutes into the movie that Schnabel permits us to glimpse Bauby, such are the director’s scruples about permitting any recoil at the inhumanity of his condition.

Schnabel further presses the impermanence and fragility of life with parallels to Bauby’s aging father (including a tender scene where Bauby remembers helping to shave him) and a friend who was held hostage in Beirut. It is in fact the friend, in a visit with Bauby, who encourages: “Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you’ll survive.” And this, I think, is close to the thematic agenda underlying Schnabel’s efforts. In witnessing the cruel imprisonment of Bauby in his own body, we’re forced to ask what it is that defines our humanity and therefore ultimately gives us hope. Is it our ability to move and interact that determines who we are? Is it in expression and in communicating that we gain meaning? Or is it something else?

The butterfly of the title offers something of a clue. For although the film is constrained by Bauby’s perspective, it is also liberated by it. In focusing on the inner life of Bauby, Schnabel is freed to roam among Bauby’s thoughts of the past and the unreal. Scenes from the hospital and of therapy are effectively spliced with memories and fantasies: glacier’s spearing into turquoise seas, a daydream of a lavish banquet, the recollection of romantic holidays and more are all worked into the narrative without occluding it. As a portrait of an artist, it is as much a study of Schnabel’s artistic imagination as it is Bauby’s.

Though completely still, Amalric is able to present Bauby with a dynamic, undimmed energy. His performance is honest and humourous at times: all the more convincing, as we follow Bauby’s slow embrace of the freedom of his imagination. Within his unresponsive body, Bauby is yet able to rediscover hope and purpose in communicating his thoughts and relaying his story. Upon the errant wings of this imagination, his soul finds a weightlessness, and in that he finds the quiddity of what it is to be human.

This I found was the only weakness of the film for me. As heartening as it was to watch Bauby regain hope, and triumph over his despair; the hope he encountered seemed hollow and unconvincing. The comments of Herman Bavinck, a Dutch theologian, come to mind:

Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it.

Banvinck is right – art alone cannot atone for our guilt or assuage our deepest pains. I was disappointed that director Schnabel dismissed religion too easily. In the film, Christianity assumes the shape of well-worn stereotypes: it preys on the desperate, it is excessively moralistic (a Jesus glow statue ruins Bauby’s night with a girlfriend) and is no better than the metaphorical suit of iron that pulls Bauby to the ocean floor. But even art requires a framework that only religion can provide. The kindling of our imagination can be invaluable, but it must be within the context of a transcendent moral law and the shaping of our conscience by the Spirit of God (Phil 4:8).

After opening at Cannes exactly a year to its release here in this country, the film arrives with multiple awards and high acclaim from the festival circuit (though it comes with its trophy-flush armfuls cruelly light of an Oscar – denied by the Academy’s ‘one-country-one-film’ policy). And for the most part, Schnabel deserves every accolade. His film is a haunting and abrasive journey into an interior world of both human lostness and courage. While it works more effectively at raising questions than it is at answering any of them, Schnabel has yet delivered a cinematic tale that is of unique, quiet beauty.

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