The true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffers a stroke, leaving him entirely immobile, with his right eye the only fully functioning part of his body.

1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 5 May 2021 - 1:55 PM
Magnificent performance from Almaric carries wonderful adaptation.

Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is a memoir that can’t help but make you appreciate life. Now director Julian Schnabel, working from a script by The Piano’s Ronald Harwood, has fashioned a wonderful adaptation that has precisely the same effect.

Bauby was the 43-year-old editor of French Elle living a glamorous and self-centred life until he suffered a massive stroke. When he awoke, he found himself fully conscious but paralysed and unable to speak – the victim of the rare 'locked-in" syndrome. The only movement left in his body was in one eye.

After he’d conquered suicidal impulses, Bauby found some beauty and peace in his ability to reflect on his life and to dream. Most extraordinarily, he dictated his memoir using a system where he’d blink at the correct letter while one of his devoted carers recited the alphabet.

Given that The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is the first-person story of an immobile man, director Julian Schnabel has done a magnificent job. He fearlessly puts us in the hero’s head. For the first reel, we see only what he sees, with the camera tilting and blurring as Bauby is moved, prodded and suffers other indignities. It perfectly captures the fear and helplessness. Later, as memories and dreams take over, the film expands to show us Bauby’s former life – and how others now see him.

Matthieu Almaric crafts his performance from voice-over, tortured glimpses of his paralysis-ravaged face and from impossibly poignant moments pre-stroke. He’s magnificent.

While The Diving Bell And The Butterfly sounds like a total downer, it’s not because although the sadness is constant, what grows is the sense of wonder at and value of each of life’s moment. As a movie that’s deep and heavy, but light, beautiful and soaring, this rates four stars.



Watch 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'

Tuesday 11 May, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Wednesday 12 May, 12:55pm on SBS World Movies
Thursday 13 May, 1:45am on SBS World Movies

France, 2007
Genre: Biography, Drama
Language: French
Director: Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Marie-Josée Croze, Max Von Sydow, Emmanuelle Seigner

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