09 February 2008


...so begins the English translation of the perpetual, rhythmic, melodic chanting of the alphabet in order of frequency that reverberates throughout Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly), like an emotionally charged combination of Countdown and Scrabble. Of course, while the English subtitles give us the most frequent English letters first (e, t, a, o, i, n, s...), in the original French, we hear e, s, a, i, t, n, r...

Based on the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of French Elle, who became fully paralysed after a severe stroke and although he could still hear and was fully aware and awake, he could only communicate with the world through his still-functional left eye; this is generally known as locked-in syndrome.

The film opens with Bauby waking up from the coma he has been in for three weeks. The doctors start asking him questions and he responds but they don't pay any attention. He slowly comes to realise that he can't talk or, indeed, move at all. After his initial panic, though, the dry, tender voice of his mind remains throughout the film and is actually very funny. On meeting his sexy, female physical and speech therapists, he thinks he has died and gone to heaven but when he realises he can't flirt, can't touch them, can't feel their caresses, he realises it is actually hell. The torture is prolonged when, as part of his speech therapy, Henriette blows kisses at him, with her full, sensual lips, and asks him to blow them back but, to his chagrin, he can't.

Henriette is dedicated to her patient, though, and devises an ingenious system through which Bauby can communicate with her and with others. She recites the alphabet, in order of frequency, and he will blink once to tell her when she has reached the right letter. She then repeats until she has come to the end of the word, at which point he will blink twice to hit the metaphorical spacebar. The system is slow and laborious, especially at first, and Bauby gives up, several times, as he realises he doesn't know what to say, other than je veux mourir, which pisses off Henriette big time. Soon, though, they get the hang of it and, rather like a primordial form of predictive texting, she gets very good at guessing what the word will be before he has finished spelling it out, which saves a lot of time.

Perfect it ain't but in the circumstances, it is remarkable, and soon, Céline ("not my wife; she's the mother of my children") is able to talk to him, much as it obviously pains her to see the man she obviously never got over in such a condition. Very poignant is the father's day scene, when Céline takes Bauby out to the beach in his wheelchair and their children dance and sing and run around. They kiss their father and try to show him they still love him, but they are too young to properly understand what has happened (except the son and heir who is all too knowing), which only saddens Bauby even more as he can't hug his children any more, can't hold them, reassure them, support them, and he feels he has failed as a father and that he now disappoints them. He isn't the superman they once thought he was.

More poignant still is the conversation between Bauby and his mistress, Inès, who refuses to come to visit him. She loves him madly, passionately, with all her heart, she says, but she can't bear to see him like this. This conversation takes place over the phone but as Bauby cannot reply, Céline must "translate for Inès," which turns out to be incredibly painful and awkward for all parties. It is a sign of Céline's love for Bauby that she consents for this - she knows how important it is to Bauby - even though it breaks her heart to hear him say that he misses Inès and that she means the world to him, and then again when Inès acts like such a tool and says she'll see him when he's "back to normal."

Le Scaphandre et le Papillon is the story of a book but it is also the story of the telling of a story - the story of Bauby's life but particularly his life locked in the diving-bell. Before the stroke, he had signed a book deal and was planning a modern take on The Count of Monte Cristo - an update that would play on the idea of female vengeance - and he decides that instead, he will write his memoir. He does this by meticulously spelling out his mellifluous sentences to Claude, his scribe, who then reads them back to him and helps him to edit the work. Each morning he wakes up and plans what he is going to say for three hours before dictating and in the end, the finished product is published and receives great reviews.

When he isn't painstakingly communicating with his family and with his scribe, Bauby inevitably still has a lot of free time and this is where his strength of character truly comes into play as he revisits old scenes from his past (a conversation with his father, a visit to his children, a dirty weekend in Lourdes with Inès) and imagines a rich tapestry of new, invented scenes to entertain himself and to inject some meaning into his newly minimalist life. He is fed up of "TV dinners" (the TV has just been turned off and his intravenous feed has just been started) so he imagines that he is in a great Parisian fish restaurant, eating an erotically charged dinner with Claude the scribe, as they gorge themselves on oysters and feed, touch and kiss each other passionately.

A lot of the film is shot from Bauby's perspective - the scenes are often blurry and out of focus, characters move inadvertently "off camera" and we are part of Bauby's blinks. The contrast between the clinical, subdued, white scenes in the hospital where he stays and those that take place in his memory and his imagination, filled with colour, noise, passion, energy and vigour, is exquisite. This is interspersed with shots of a real diving-bell, underwater, and of Bauby in his wheelchair on a pontoon out to sea. All of this is set to a great soundtrack with songs ranging from Velvet Underground's gorgeous Pale Blue Eyes to Charles Trenet's classic La Mer (also heard at the end of one of my film favourites, The Dreamers) and the haunting, melancholic score, including the Theme for the Diving-bell and the Butterfly.

There are moments of small joy and relief for him but ultimately he is trapped, alone and unhappy, locked behind huis clos, and, rather like the characters is Sartre's play, his hell is being with other people and yet still being isolated from them and unable to be the part of their lives he once was.

It could have been a very depressing film but while not exactly being a riot of laughs (save a few funny moments, mainly involving Bauby's spirited wit), Le Scaphandre et le Papillon was more uplifting and inspiring than nihilistic and despair-inducing. "Il y a de l'espoir," sez the doctor, several times. There is hope. That, there is; no matter how hard it might be to see it at times, there is always reason to hope and Julian Schnabel's beautifully shot, and well acted film, with its warm, funny script, powerfully demonstrates this and fully deserves its Oscar nominations for best director and best adapted screenplay. An enlightening and moving experience.

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