Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Julian Schnabel Oscar Nominated Drama

(Le Scaphandre et le papillon)

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (Competition) –“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Julian Schnabel’s third feature, a biopic of Elle’s former editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who was diagnosed with the “Locked-in syndrome,” is at once a faithful adaptation of Bauby’s 1997 memoir as well as a powerful and touching film that stands on its own merits due to the subjective treatment it gets from the director who’s an accomplished artist himself.

Though not intended as an inspirational message movie, “Diving Bell” is a testament to the human spirit and will to survive against all odds, a film whose emotional impact recalls other biopics about immobilized artists, such as Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” (1989) with Daniel Day-Lewis, and more recently Spaniard Amenabar’s Oscar-winning “The Sea Inside” (2004) with Javier Bardem in the lead.

“Divine Bell” represents a logical follow-up to Schnabel’s previous films, “Basquiat” in 1997 (which was rejected by Cannes Fest) and “Before Night Falls” in 2000, in which Bardem gave an Oscar-nominated performance. All of these pictures are dealing with artists who were physically immobilized and/or mentally tormented, and also victimized and/or misunderstood by the surrounding societyfor one reason or another.

According to earlier reports, Johnny Depp was attached to this project, but after dropping out, Schnabel cast the accomplished French actor Mathieu Amalric, who gives a fully-bodied performance in the tough lead, as a man who refused to succumb to his physical impairment and against all odds managed to publish his memoirs.

“Divine Bell” the movie begins just like the book, with a white, blinding light and a dance of color in soft focus. Gradually the faces of strangers appear, taking to Bauby-and to us viewers. Bauby learns that he is in a hospital, hooked up to machines to help him breathe.

A man dressed as a doctor comes towards Bauby and gives him an assessment of the situation: He has had a cerebro-vascular accident, and has been in a coma for several months. Bauby tries to answer, but no one seems to hear him.

The doctor, whose name is Lepage (Patrick Chesnais), explains that Bauby is suffering from an extremely rare condition, the “locked-in syndrome,” which compromises the brain stem that acts as relay between the brain and the rest of the nervous system. As patient, Babuy is entirely paralyzed, as if locked inside himself, his whole body trapped by a sort of a diving bell.

It’s hard to imagine how Bauby survived and managed to write, and in this respect, the movie illuminates the creative process and the need to narrate and record one’s life like no other film I have seen. In Bauby’s case, only his left eyelid is functional. It is his last window on the world and his only method of communication. One blink means yes, two blinks mean no. But, on the other hand, the brain itself is in perfect working order. While Bauby can no longer speak, he can hear, understand, and remember.

Besides the left eyelid, two valuable systems still function: His imagination and his memory. And indeed, Bauby’s interior dialogue swings from the funny to the tragic, from wisdom to revolt and back again. When he decided to tell his story, he’s determined to record it not as a series of factual, content-driven interviews, but as a subjective novel.

Physical details are crucial in this kind of picture. How then does he write Bauby memorizes the sentence of his story beforehand and then, using the system developed by his speech therapist, he dictates them letter-by-letter, by blinking when the correct letter is pronounced out loud.

An artist himself, Schnabel treats the text as anything but a conventional Hollywood biopic, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Instead, his movie is structured as collages of facts, dreams and fantasies. Constructed as a puzzle, gradually we get to meet the crucial persona in Bauby’s life, such as his children, Theophile (Theo Sampaio) and Celeste (Fiorella Campanella), and their mother, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner).

Staying at a naval hospital in northern France, Bauby is visited by his friends Laurent (Isaach de Bankole) and Roussin (Niels Arestrup), who had spent years as a hostage in Beirut.

Then there’s the personnel that helped him to survive and to create: Speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), who teaches him the basic alphabet system, and Claude (Anne Consigny), who’s painstakingly meticulous in taking dictation for his book. The rigorous discipline and commitment of Bauby, Henriette, and Claude are nothing short of miraculous. One of the many effects of this forceful chronicle is that it will make you reevaluate and reappreciate the very acts of writing and reading.

As director, Schnabel had the smarts to hire the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, best-known for his diverse work for Spielberg (“Schindler’s List,” “Munich”) to translate visually his subjective approach to Bauby’s condition. In a series of surreal, dream-like tableaux, the director and his artistic team capture methodically yet vividly Bauby’s life as a fluid stream-of-consciousness.

Cannes Award

A week after this review was written, Schnabel was honored by the Cannes Film Fest Jury with the Best Director Award.

Biographical Note

It took Bauby 14 months, while staying in room 119 of the Berck Maritime Hospital, to complete his “bedridden travel notes.” Bauby’s memoir was published in 1997, just days before his death, at age 45.


Jean-Dominique Bauby – Mathieu Amalric
Celine Desmoulin – Emmanuelle Seigner
Henriette Durand – Marie-Josee Croze
Claude – Anne Consigny
Dr. Lepage – Patrick Chesnais
Roussin – Niels Arestrup
Marie Lopez – Olatz Lopez Garmendia
Father Lucien – Jean-Pierre Cassel
Josephine – Marina Hands
Papinou – Max Von Sydow


A Pathe Distribution release of a Pathe Renn Production presentation, in co-production with France 3 Cinema, with the support of La Region Nord, with the participation of Canal Plus and Cinecinema, in association with Banque Populaire Images 7, in association with the Kennedy/Marshall Co. and Jon Kilik.

Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik.
Executive producers, Pierre Grunstein, Jim Lemley.
Directed by Julian Schnabel.
Screenplay, Ronald Harwood, based on the book “Le Scaphandre et le papillon” by Jean-Dominique Bauby.
Camera: Janusz Kaminski
Editor: Juliette Welfing
Music: Paul Cantelon
Set designers, Michel Eric, Laurent Ott
Costume designer: Olivier Beriot
Sound: Jean-Paul Mugel, Francis Wargnier, Dominique Gaborieau
Visual effects supervisors: Malika Mazaurie, Yann Blondel

Running time: 114 Minutes