We are all doomed, all facing annihilation at an hour approaching more rapidly than we would like to admit. In the meantime, we seek to communicate our experiences to our fellow living beings. We want others to know what life feels like from our perspective, perhaps even after we are gone.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a real-life Frenchman who engaged this struggle with rare intensity.
Bauby, the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, suffered a stroke in 1995 that put him first into a coma, and then into a condition known as “locked-in syndrome” — being awake and aware, but completely paralyzed.
Well, not completely. He is able to blink one eye. To keep his other eye from drying out and turning septic, it is stitched closed.
Watching for blinks of this one eye as the alphabet (reordered by letter frequency) is recited to him, Bauby’s thoughts are painstakingly reassembled into words, phrases, and sentences.
Except for this, he lies in his hospital bed or sits in a wheelchair. He is a silent, motionless witness to whatever is in front of him — even if that’s hours on end of undesirable television, or simply a black screen that someone has arbitrarily switched off.
Three beautiful and heartbreakingly compassionate women assist Monsieur Bauby in each tiny step of his struggle — two therapists and a transcriber. But of course such pleasantness is double edged: This father of three through his estranged girlfriend, in the midst of a love affair with a second woman, now finds himself with a sewn-shut eye and a sagging, drooling lip, able only to gaze longingly at these three new caring angels.
Mathieu Amalric stars in the film, with Emmanuelle Seigner as his estranged girlfriend, Marie-Josée Croze as his speech therapist, Anne Consigny as his transcriber Claude Mendibil, and Olatz López Garmendia as a his physical therapist.
While the cast is very good, and Max von Sydow turns in a superb and moving performance as Bauby’s father, the main achievement of this movie is director Julian Schnabel‘s success in putting us into Bauby’s physical space. A good portion of the film is shot through Bauby’s one eye, fixed on a spot as visitors move in and out of the frame, or panning haphazardly as Bauby’s wheelchair is carried up stairs. His dejected thoughts are narrated in a tight space, giving us the locked-in, “diving bell” sensation referenced in the title. His memories and imagination permit escape from this prison now and then.
The title also mentions a butterfly, but this movie does not stray into maudlin sentimentality or orchestrated inspiration. On the contrary, its tone is very matter-of-fact. Calm and steady courage are seen as a practical approach to a daunting situation. There are no orchestral swells, but the soundtrack does include a few very effective snippets from the likes of U2 and Tom Waits.
Apparently, there has also been some controversy regarding the movie’s portrayal of Bauby’s girlfriends as compared with that of the book, and also the first girfriend’s real-life involvement with the projects. Having only seen the movie, I would be interested in reading the book sometime.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was nominated for four Academy Awards. It is very worth watching for the empathy it fosters, reminding us of the harsh limits life can impose, and the unlimited potential of humans to exceed them.I rate it four out of five stars at Netflix.
(Use the “set-up” menu on the DVD to choose between French or English audio and subtitles. On our machine, for some reason, the subtitles defaulted to a commentary in English, but we were able to switch to regular English subtitles after some brief confusion.)
- New York University Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — An interesting commentary comparing the book and the movie in terms of educating health care professionals about patient experience.
- Salon.com (February 23, 2008): The truth about “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” By Beth Arnold — A look at differences between how Bauby’s two girlfriends are portrayed in the book and the movie, and the involvement of Sylvie de la Rochefoucauld, real-life mother of Bauby’s two children
- Greg Berg: Long Day’s Journey into Light / The Last Day / Viking Farewell — A series of poignant December 2008 blog entries by my former colleague Greg Berg, regarding another former colleague, Playford Thorsen. Afflicted with ALS, Playford also communicated one letter at a time.