Try this for a movie premise: a stroke victim dictates his autobiography via a system of blinks. We almost never leave the hospital setting. The patient does not recover from his illness. And our hero is an adulterer. You wouldn’t get past a studio exec.’s dog with that pitch in Hollywood. You might make it in Britain, if you took out the sex, the brio, and the joie de vivre. But if ever there was a quintessentially French movie premise, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is it. Our hero, editor of Elle, adulterer, intellectual, gourmand… is France. He has an ineffable, intoxicating French-ness that makes some of us (ok, me) root for him immediately. Call it je ne sais qua.
In 1995 Jean-Dominique Bauby was living most men’s fantasy life: he worked with supermodels, slept with supermodels, drove a shiny sports-car and maintained a nice house (and a hugely understanding wife) in the country. Then one day he had a stroke. He woke up paralyzed. Not from the waist-down or from the neck-down: totally. He could see and hear, and think unimpaired, but his body had become a tomb. His only means of communication was his one good eye: he could still blink. Patiently, and with remarkable care and understanding, his team of doctors laboured to design a system that would allow him to express more than “yes” and “no” (one blink or two). They came up with a method whereby Bauby would blink in response to letters of the alphabet, thereby allowing him to spell words, and, ultimately, to write a best-selling book.
This sounds…worthy. I know. It sounds like a movie you would see on daytime TV and think: thank God I work during the day. But it’s not. The best recommendation I can make to you about this movie is that you won’t feel you are watching something Important (i.e. gun-in-the-mouth inducing) as you watch it. It is, above all else, a hugely enjoyable movie. And I don’t mean “enjoyable” the way people tell you Three Colours White is enjoyable. There is real humour in this movie, not just situations that are meant to be funny. Mathieu Amalric, as Bauby, is witty, insouciant, horny, frustrated, occasionally despairing… but he is never dull, and he doesn’t seek to elevate his struggle. He is you and I, in his position. Only smarter, and sexier, and still the sort of man who might stand a chance with a hot speech therapist, even though he’s paralyzed and drooling. He’s a bit of an asshole. Halleluiah! He doesn’t end his affair even after his stroke. He is – for better or worse – French. He can’t be worthy.
Director Julian Schnabel sets himself a challenge: to make all this beautiful. Working with Steven Spielberg’s regular cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, he succeeds to a degree that would put Titian to shame. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the most visually ravishing movies of the year, its colours are delectable. Even the interior of the hospital looks inviting. And the cast… the women… somehow every Brit knows French doctors must look like this (think: French actresses, in white coats), but here their beauty works for the movie, because it’s designed to be beautiful. From the beach to the trees, to the city, to Bauby’s sick-bed, your eyes feast.
What is “French”? It isn’t food, it isn’t art – it’s a way of looking at the world. It’s in the Gallic shrug, the café culture, the refusal to work nine-to-five or to give up cigarettes because everyone else does. To be French is to say: I don’t need anyone else’s approval. It’s an adult attitude. It’s why Jean-Dominique Bauby didn’t find God, or lose his sense of humour when he had a stroke. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would have been maudlin if they’d made it in Hollywood, and far too earnest if they’d made it in the U.K. But in France it could be honest – inspirational only where it was obliged to be. The movie is a triumph of mature, sophisticated hope.