Based on the book of the same name – the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of popular French fashion magazine Elle – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an exceptional 2007 biographical drama directed by Julian Schnabel.
Told from Bauby’s (Mathieu Amalric) first person perspective, the film opens as he wakes from a three-week coma in a French hospital following a massive stroke at the age of 42.
A neurologist eventually diagnoses locked-in syndrome, an extremely rare condition that has left Bauby almost completely physically paralyzed, with the exception of one functioning eye, whilst retaining full mental capacity.
Unable to speak, his speech and language therapists develop a system of communication which involves blinking his left eye as she slowly reads a list of letters to spell out his messages, letter by letter.
Prior to his stroke, whilst editor of Elle magazine, he had secured a publishing deal to write a book based on The Count of Monte Cristo, although from a female perspective. Realising that his life expectancy is short, he resolves to write his memoirs instead, and renegotiates his publishing contract.
Between the ‘writing’ sessions, he fantasizes with poignant humour and a lust for life, imagining beaches, mountains, the Empress Eugénie and an erotic feast with one of his therapists.
As the memoir emerges, Bauby recalls places and people; his children and their mother, from whom he is estranged, his mistress and friends. He reconnects with an old friend who had been kidnapped and held captive in Beirut, and his own 92-year-old father, confined to his own apartment, too frail to descend four flights of stairs.
Describing what it is like to be trapped in his body as being within an old-fashioned deep-sea diving suit with a brass helmet – a Diving Bell. Others liken his spirit to a Butterfly.
Bauby eventually completes his memoir and hears the critics’ responses, dying of pneumonia just ten days after its publication.
The film won numerous awards at the Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the César Awards, and received four Academy Award nominations. Several critics considered it to be one of the best films of its decade.