The Doors of Perception: Nietzsche Revisited in The Diving Bell & The Butterfly

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Jean-Dominique Baudy (Mathieu Amalric, right) and his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner).
Jean-Dominique Baudy (Mathieu Amalric, right) and his wife (Emmanuelle Seigner, left) feed each other.

Le scaphandre et le papillon by the American artist and director Julian Schnabel is a good example of what cinema is able to accomplish. Based on a novel by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor-in-chief of the French magazine Elle, the movie is depicting his real and unique destiny.

After a stroke Bauby (Quantum Of Solace villain Mathieu Amalric) suffered from the so-called locked-in syndrome, a rare disease of the brain which causes a paralysis of the body, yet leaving the mind intact. In his case the only doors of perception left to him were his ears and one eye he could move. The title The Diving Bell & The Butterfly is drawn from metaphors he used to describe his condition. Imprisoned in his body which is the diving bell, his mind and fantasy were still free as a butterfly. Bauby dictated the novel on which the movie is based through a method that used the blinking of his eye as a code.

What makes this movie so special is the viewer’s perspective. We are caught in the mind of the main character in the course of the whole film experience. The first pictures are blurred and voices are murmuring. We feel his conscious horror when the eyelids of his sick eye have to be sewed together to avoid infections. His mute desperation is the background tune of all that happens to him. In flashbacks we are introduced to his former life and finally to the incident that changed his life forever. Ironically, Bauby’s stroke marks the end of the motion picture – and his story, which wouldn’t have been told without this fatal occurrence.

It’s this play with the ending and beginning, outer and inner worlds that makes this movie so fascinating to me. As Friedrich Nietzsche tried to find a profane simulacrum for the Christian idea of the eternal life by substituting it with the eternal recurrence, Julian Schnabel tries to explore the atheist’s approach to the meaning of suffering. Bauby proves a true Nietzschean in the course of his tale of woe, because he develops from a negative person to a person who says yes to life despite its hardships and strokes of fate. His amor fati reconciles him with his life.

Julian Schnabel, who earned recognition as an artist before his directing career, found a unique approach to cinema by following Oscar Wilde’s aestheticism. The latter wrote in his work De Profundis: ‘Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit.’ Julian Schnabel found a very artful and appropriate expression of the main character’s inward sorrow. But still, ‘there is no truth comparable to sorrow,’ Oscar Wilde continues. The artist has to fail in showing the truth of sorrow, but he is failing in a masterly way.