The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

by | Nov 7, 2011 | Culture | 0 comments

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007) poster.
Directed by Julian Schnabel.
Based on the autobiography of the same title by Jean-Dominique Bauby,
former editor in chief of French Elle.


‘ve read the review of this film in Elle Indonesia years ago and didn’t really pay attention to it, but when  I encountered the DVD box in my campus library’s AV section, the memory of the review came back. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the story of French Elle’s editor in chief, Jean-Dominique Bauby. A 44 year old (sort of) debonair with two young children, seemed to be living his life to the fullest both as a fashion magazine editor and as a good looking man. His life suddenly changed when he was hit by a strange case of stroke named locked-in syndrome where he was paralyzed from head to toe.

The film, directed by Julian Schnabel opened with a scene in a hospital room from Jean-Dominique’s (played by actor Mathieu Amalric) point of view. From his point of view–first blur, then slowly became clear–we saw doctors were surrounding him, waiting for him to regain consciousness after a long coma. They performed tests, asked him his name, whether he remembered anything and he answered all the questions correctly.

 Problem was, the doctors couldn’t hear his answers. From then on he knew that something was wrong with him. His memory retained, but his whole body, except for his left eye and hearing, were paralysed.

With the help of his speech therapist, Jean-Dominique managed to write a book about his thoughts on his life and condition. His speech therapist dictated each alphabet and Jean-Dominique would blink to the correct alphabet, slowly forming words that became sentences.

We were taken inside Jean-Dominique’s mind–in his situation he still got his wit and womanizing insticts–as well as to see the visualizations of Jean-Dominique’s thoughts and imaginations: his thought about his current situation, his thoughts about his hey-day, imagination of him making out with his girlfriends, landscapes he visited through his imaginations, and many more, juxtaposed with vignettes of falling iceberg and of a man in a diving bell, diving in water. Those visualizations and juxtaposition were the unique parts of the film.

Schnabel, the director, took an unusual approach in shooting the film. Instead of taking the film with steady and straight camera angle, he took the film from Jean-Dominique’s eye level, whether he was lying in the hospital bed or his therapy bed, or sitting on his wheel chair. For example, in a scene where Jean-Dominique was visited by his friend and girlfriend while sitting on his wheel chair in the hospital balcony, we only got to see their waists, and sometimes their face if they bent toward the camera (the camera as Jean-Dominique). Uncomfortable point of view for us–the audiences–yes, but the way Schnabel took those scenes enabled the viewers to feel more in Jean-Dominique’s shoes and to feel the limitations he encountered with his condition. Schnabel allowed us to feel more about the irony in Jean-Dominique. He had his memory and ability to think perfectly attached to him, while physically he was detached from the world.

The vignettes of falling iceberg and of a man in a diving bell that came in and out among scenes of Jean-Dominique and his imaginations were a great metaphors of the entrapment Jean-Dominique encounter. He was trapped within his own body and that in the beginning the situation were somewhat perceived by him as downward spiral, like a falling iceberg. Later in the film we saw butterflies and reversed mode of the falling iceberg, signifying the liberation of Jean-Dominique entrapment situation.

Personally, I think this film depicted the sense of entrapment and the irony in a depressingly beautiful way. The film took us everywhere, made us see the freedom and richness in life, while constantly reminding that those freedom and richness were confined inside in one’s mind. This film also showed the ability to gain wisdom out of a tragic situation. Life and sense of freedom, the two pivotal aspects in a being are also the two aspects that constantly taken for granted.

Julian Schnabel is an American writer and director. His films before The Diving Bell and the Butterfly were Basquiat (1996), a biopic of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat; and Before Night Falls (2000) starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp, in which Bardem won an Academy Award for his performance. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly itself managed to be one of the nominees of Golden Palm Award in 2007 Cannes Film Festival and earned him an award for Best Director in Cannes, Golden Globe, and Academy Award.

From his role as Jean-Dominique Bauby, Mathieu Amalric achieved the award for Best Actor in César Award–a national French film award–and in French Film Critics’ 2007 Étoile d’Or. He also played Dominic Greene, the villain in 2008 James Bond installment, Quantum of Solace. Recently he starred in French film Chicken With Plums (2011), a film based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same title. The film opened in 68th Venice Film Festival on 3 September 2011 and released in France on 26 October. 

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly itself appeared on many critics’ top ten list of best films in 2007. 

Title: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon)
Director: Julian Schnabel
Casts: Mathieu Amalric (Jean-Dominique Bauby), Emanuelle Signer (Céline), Marie-Josée Croze (Henriette), Anne Consigny (Claude), Patrick Chesnais (Dr. Lepage), Niels Arestrup (Roussin), Olatz Lopez Garmendia (Marie Lopez), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Father Lucian/Lourdes vendor), Marina Hands (Josephine), Issach de Bankole (Laurent), Max von Sydow (Papinou), Anna Chyzh (model).
Duration: 1 hr 15 mins
Language: French
Disclaimer: not for the faint hearted, sexual content & nudity, gloomy, unconventional plot.


“I decided to stop pitying myself.
Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed, my imagination and my memory.”
Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric)


Written by Anty

A CR Girl turned stay at home Mom of 3 kids. Missus Heroine is the place where I share my thoughts and journey adapting into my new roles as well as many other things. Here I am, in a journey of becoming the Heroine I want myself to be.

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