Cast: Mathieu Almaric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Cosigny, Max von Sydow
Oscar Nominations: Best Director (Julian Schnabel), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood), Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), Best Film Editing (Juliette Welfling)
SUMMARY: In 1995, a man named Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Almaric) wakes up from a three-week coma in a hospital. Bauby, the French editor of Elle magazine, is informed by doctors that he has suffered a stroke that has paralyzed nearly his entire body, but is also suffering from the very rare “locked-in syndrome”: though his body cannot move, his brain is still fully operational. Bauby is still mentally all there, but has no way of communicating or caring for himself. The only part of his body that he can control is his eyes, but when the right one begins having trouble, the doctors sew it shut. Bauby is assigned a physical therapist and a speech therapist who immediately begin working with him. The speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) researches a way for Bauby to communicate: she recites the different letters (in order of frequency of use, not alphabetic order) until Bauby blinks his left eye, allowing him to slowly spell out words. Though he initially feels helpless and suicidal, Bauby ultimately decides to live.
To give himself purpose, he decides to fulfill a book contract arranged before the stroke. Bauby had planned to write a new version of The Count of Monte Cristo but now decides to write about what life is like with locked-in syndrome. He likens the condition to being inside an old deep-sea diving suit, with a heavily weighted body and brass helmet. To help with the book, his editor sends over a woman named Claude (Anne Consigny), who writes down what Bauby says. He spends the nights composing and arranging what he wants to write, then laboriously spells it out for Claude the next day. On one occasion, she tells him that she sees him as a butterfly, rather than the diving-suit image. As he writes the book, Bauby also begins to reconnect with important people in his life. In particular, he begins to frequently see his three children, whose mother he never married. Their relationship is strained, but she also learns to use the frequency alphabet so that she can talk to Bauby. This woman, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), begins to act as a sort of secretary for Bauby, helping him with his mail and watching over Bauby’s elderly father (Max von Sydow). In contrast, Bauby’s current girlfriend (whom Celine clearly dislikes) stays away from the hospital, and rarely calls. Bauby eventually begins to move his head a little bit, and starts to vocalize indistinctly. He finishes the book, but suffers a major setback when he develops pneumonia. His book is published and is an immediate critical and commercial success, but Bauby dies from pneumonia ten days afer it is released.
MY TAKE: Obviously, this is a true story, which makes it all the more remarkable. Bauby was only 42 when he suffered the stroke that paralyzed him, so between that and his successful career, you can understand why he would be angry and suicidal upon waking up from the coma. That’s got to be hell for anybody, to have the same mental state but not be able to control your body or speak. As mentioned, locked-in syndrome is really rare, so apparently most people who suffer a stroke have severe brain damage as a result. The good thing that comes out of the stroke is that Bauby begins to spend more time with his children. He also writes the book, which the movie is based on, about what it is like to have locked-in syndrome. The amazing thing about this, aside from the fact that he literally wrote it one letter at a time, is that he composed the whole thing in his head. Nobody edited it (at least not in terms of rearranging sections), so he figured out the order in which he wanted to tell things, and what exactly he wanted to say, and then spelled it out. This is pretty incredible: I’m sure most people edit at least part of what they’re writing as they go (I just did, when I decided to phrase this sentence differently than my first attempt). It’s a testament to Bauby’s intelligence that he can do this, but it also highlights how terrible it must be to have locked-in syndrome, that a man of that brain power can be trapped in his own body. I was sad to find that Bauby died in 1997, only ten days after his book was published, because I was hoping for at least a partial recovery. I really had hope that this would happen, because Bauby started to be able to control parts of his body, like his head and some vocalizations. Unfortunately, this did not happen, but thankfully he was able to complete his book before the end.
Fun facts: Emmanuelle Seigner, who plays the mother of Bauby’s children, is married to famed director Roman Polanski. Polanski was famously once married to Sharon Tate, who was killed by the Manson Family.
Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer of this film, is more famous for his frequent collaborations with Steven Spielberg — he’s shot every one of Spielberg’s films since 1993.