What happened to the women in The Diving-bell and the Butterfly in its transition from memoir to film, asks Melanie Newman?
The film of The Diving-bell and the Butterfly was released in 2007. Based on a memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of French fashion magazine Elle, it describes his life since he suffered a paralysing stroke at the age of 43. The film was directed by Julian Schnabel and written by Ronald Harwood, who adapted the book of the same name. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won a BAFTA for best adapted screenplay.
Two scenes in the film stand out.
In the first, a doctor sews up the paralysed Bauby’s right eyelid to protect his damaged eye. He is unable to speak but we hear his anguished interior voice begging the doctor to stop; we see blurrily through his right eye as it is sealed up. Shown early in the film, the scene illustrates the ghastliness of Bauby’s situation. He is not only powerless to physically resist what is done to him, but unable to voice his terror. Although the doctor is aware that Bauby’s intelligence is unaffected and that he can communicate by blinking, he does not ask the patient whether he consents to the procedure. The doctor’s action – though medically necessary – seems inhuman.
In the second scene, Bauby’s girlfriend telephones him while he is alone with his ex, Céline, the mother of his children. Céline is a regular visitor at the hospital, but the girlfriend, Inès, has not seen Bauby since his stroke. After an emotional outpouring Inès
asks whether she should visit. Bauby blinks out his response as Céline – the only person on hand – translates. He tells Inès: “Each day I wait for you.” Silent tears trickle from Céline’s eyes and she jams the receiver down. The incident is an extraordinary demonstration of the power of the immobilised Bauby over the able-bodied woman.
The first incident sets the scene for Bauby’s psychological struggle to come to terms with his condition and master the despair that threatens to engulf him. Later in the film, we learn that Bauby risks losing his own sense of self. A colleague who had been held hostage in Beirut urges Bauby to hold on to his humanity, as this is the only way to survive.
The second scene is jarringly unexpected and leads nowhere – its consequences are not explored. Nothing in the narrative up to this point has prepared us for this cruelty on Bauby’s part. While we understand that he was a womaniser, we have also been told that he regrets his treatment of the abandoned Céline, who has shown him nothing but loyalty and love since his stroke. At one point she tells him: “You’re the most amazing man I ever met.” In the absence of any convincing explanation for Céline’s slavish devotion, and in the light of Bauby’s callousness, her behaviour comes across as near-masochistic.
Neither does the telephone scene fit comfortably with what we know of Bauby’s relationship with Inès. Earlier they are shown on a “dirty weekend” in Lourdes. Inès prevails on Bauby to buy her a kitsch but expensive Madonna with a flashing halo. Later he asks her to switch it off so that they can have sex. She refuses and he casually suggests that they should split up when they get back. Just as casually, she agrees. On the basis of this episode, we might well expect Inès to vanish from Bauby’s life now that he can no longer provide sex or cash. Instead we next hear of her choking with tears as she explains that she misses Bauby terribly but cannot bear to see him paralysed. Her love sustains – inexplicably – but is shown as lacking in comparison with that of the self-sacrificing Céline. Inès’ selfishness is further highlighted at the end of the film when, after the book’s publication, we hear her re-stating her commitment to Bauby as if in answer to an accusation.
Unlike the eyelid-sealing scene, the Céline-Inès telephone translation scene was entirely the invention of the film’s makers. It does not appear within the book, which makes scant reference to either the mother of his children (Sylvie) or his girlfriend (Florence). The incident with the flashing Madonna occurred with a different woman altogether. Sylvie crops up only once in the book, in a scene where she takes Bauby to the beach with their children.
An article in Salon suggests that of the two women it was Florence who visited and supported Bauby during his paralysis, not the mother of his children, who was apparently in the US with her boyfriend at the time of his death. If this is correct, it raises several moral questions. Have the film’s director, Julian Schnabel and screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, defamed Florence? They were purporting to tell the story of a man who painstakingly memorised, then blinked out every word – every letter – of his autobiography. Did they have the right to ascribe wholly fictional relationships to him?
Leaving the moral issues aside, perhaps a dramatic case could be made for re-writing Bauby’s history. A situation in which a woman cares for – and has ultimate power over – the man who abandoned and ill-treated her has much scope for drama, for cruelty and revenge. In Roald Dahl’s story ‘William and Mary’ a domineering husband, dying of cancer, has his brain transplanted and hooked up to an artificial heart and a single eye. His wife Mary takes great pleasure in smoking and watching TV in front of William’s eye – both luxuries he had forbidden her when he was able-bodied.
The filmakers could have used Bauby’s cruelty to Céline to illustrate the idea that cataclysmic events do not fundamentally change character – or that they do. But this would require a more consistent portrayal of his attitudes and a fuller examination of their consequences.
Rather than explore such complexities, Harwood has created, in the words of Salon’s Beth Arnold, a story about “an invalid babe magnet”. He has diminished the character of his subject to no dramatic effect. While the telephone scene has undoubted dramatic power, it ultimately detracts from the film because it is isolated within the narrative.
The three other women in the film – Bauby’s translator, speech therapist and physical therapist – are all beautiful, devoted and one-dimensional. The bad girl-good girl dynamic and the bevy of hot nurses may have made the film more accessible, but it was always going to have a limited appeal to the international mainstream as it is sub-titled.
None of this has prevented the film achieving critical success. It scored 92 out of 100 on Metacritic.com (a site which collates reviews), signifying “universal acclaim”, was nominated for an Oscar for best-adapted screenplay and has won dozens of other awards. Perhaps critics are so used to cartoon females that they do not notice them. Worse, perhaps they expect them.