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Last Updated: Friday, 8 February 2008, 08:20 GMT
Diving Bell movie's fly-away success

By Rebecca Thomas
BBC News entertainment reporter

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Bauby would blink when the correct letter was said by the therapist

Adapting a well-loved book for the cinema is always a risky business, but for Julian Schnabel, US director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the gamble has paid off.

Schnabel has notched up a string of awards, including two Golden Globes, and is nominated in four categories at the Academy Awards.

His French-language film is based on the best-selling memoir of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby, the gregarious, "bon viveur" editor of French Elle magazine was, at the age of 43, suddenly paralysed by a devastating stroke.

Diagnosed with "locked-in syndrome", all that remained to him was one unaffected eye - and the strength of his mind.

Though appalled by his condition, Bauby came to realise that he had been left with an incredible gift.

Director Julian Schnabel
Bauby solved the problem: he turned a disaster into something extraordinary
Julian Schnabel

He still had the means to escape the "diving bell" of his stricken body by letting the "butterfly" of his memory and imagination take flight.

Harnessing this power, Bauby went on to dictate - using a method of blinking the alphabet - a poignant and witty book about his past and present life that astounded the world when published in 1997.

Two days later, Bauby died.

Schnabel had already been deeply affected by the book when approached to make it into a film. So, when he agreed it was with some trepidation.

"I dreaded it in a way but the script was very good and it was about something I felt was important. It was about consciousness and I thought the movie was beyond subject matter in a way," he says.

He also had strong personal reasons for making the movie, having looked after both a close friend and his father before their deaths.

Beauty and detail

"It had a lot to do with when my father was sick with cancer and being scared of death. That became the catalyst for me to do this film.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Bauby, like Schnabel, was very close to his father

"I too always had a problem dealing with death and this helped me be more accepting of the whole thing. Bauby converted his body into that book and we can share from that."

The film follows Bauby - played by future Bond baddie Mathieu Amalric - through his time at the hospital in Berck sur Mer in northern France, where he stayed from the time of his accident in 1995 until his death.

Though his physical world is reduced, his mind travels where it likes, to Paris's best seafood restaurant or back to his last moments with his father.

All the scenes are shot with an eye for beauty and detail that betrays Schnabel's other career as an artist.

Emmanuelle Seigner in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Emmanuelle Seigner plays Bauby's ex-partner

"An accumulation of events from my life and images from the catalogue of my experience come into play when I make a film," he explains.

"It's like being a scavenger, collecting junk and leaving it out on the porch until you need it."

Friends rally round Bauby and he is attended to by a group of beautiful women - speech therapist, physio, the transcriber of his book, and his ex-partner, also mother of his children.

Apart from notable exceptions, such as Swedish star Max Von Sydow as Bauby's father, all the cast is French.

Authenticity was vital to Schnabel and most of the filming was done in the Berck hospital with Bauby's nurses playing parts.

'Life-affirming'

"It had to be in French. I had to believe it if I was going to make it at all," says Schnabel.

"I thought it would seem fake if English and American actors were in a French hospital speaking in a French accent and French viewers had to read subtitles. It seemed absurd."

Above all, Schnabel wanted the audience to feel like Bauby's confidante, to the point where the viewer feels he or she actually is Bauby.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Though deeply sad, the movie's message is one of hope

The camera lens acts as Bauby's one working eye, so we see much of the film from his perspective. And the other actors talked to the camera, not to Amalric.

He recorded his internal monologue off set and much of what he says was spontaneous, and true to Bauby's spirit and wit.

Stripped of the trappings of his former world, Bauby ultimately sees the true value of life and the people around him.

And, Schnabel says he wants the audience to be uplifted by his film.

"They should feel it's very life-affirming. People go home and hug their kids after they've seen it and think how fortunate they are," he says.

"They see that the material of beauty is something they can look for in their interior lives.

"Bauby was quite resolved and collected when he died and it's very peaceful ultimately. He solved the problem: he turned a disaster into something extraordinary."

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly opens in the UK on 8 February.

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