From the Vault: ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,’ Starring Mathieu Amalric as Jean-Dominique Bauby

Marie-Josée Croze in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly © Miramax Films

Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor-in-chief of the French fashion magazine ELLE, lived a life of excess and self-indulgence until he turned forty-four. That year, he suffered a massive stroke that rendered him permanently paralyzed from the neck down with a rare disorder known as locked-in syndrome. With his mind, hearing, and vision all left intact, Babuy was buried alive, a mind of sociable tastes and literary wit, entombed.

With the help of a speech therapist, who would recite a frequency-ordered alphabet (pictured above), Bauby was taught partner-assisted scanning and learned to communicate through a series of eye blinks. Alongside a patient amanuensis who sat with him four hours a day for ten months, Bauby dictated the entirety of his memoirLe scaphandre et le papillon, on which “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is based.

Aesthetically, the film takes particular interest in the story its title promises. The claustrophobia and weight of Bauby’s reality is transformed by the freedom of his fantasy and memory. This much is evident even in the film’s trailer (below). As A. O. Scott so aptly wrote in his review of the film, “Curiously enough, a movie about deprivation becomes a celebration of the richness of experience, and a remarkably rich experience in its own right. In his memoir Mr. Bauby performed a heroic feat of alchemy, turning horror into wisdom, and [Julian] Schnabel, following his example and paying tribute to his accomplishment, has turned pity into joy.”

The film is an extraordinary contribution, life-affirming and joyous.

Bauby’s memoir was published on March 6, 1997, and sold 25,000 copies on day one and 150,000 after the first week. It went on to become an international bestseller. Three days after the book’s publication, Bauby died of pneumonia.

In 2007, Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls”) and Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”) adapted Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir into a French-language film. Mathieu Amalric  (“Quantum of Solace”) plays Bauby or, Jean-Do. The film won awards at the Cannes Film Festival, Golden Globes, and BAFTAs, and the César Awards. It was also nominated for four Academy Awards, including directing and adapted screenplay.