The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (9/10)


What would you do if a stroke caused you to become completely paralyzed except in the use of your eyes? Many people might be fine for the first few weeks, but after that my guess would be that the suicide rate would skyrocket. So, when you go to a movie about a man to whom this has happened, and it’s based on a true story, you’re probably expecting something along the lines of a Lifetime channel special, depressing and sobering and generally not a very fun experience. And here’s what makes “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” so good – it’s NOT. The bravest part about this film is making it into a funny and touching story and not a depressing “cripple of the week” one.

The film begins by placing us in the exact kind of spot our protagonist, Jean-Dominique Bauby, is in – disoriented, confused, worried, as we find ourselves in a hospital room surrounded by doctors. Apparently Bauby suffers from an extremely rare condition called “locked-in syndrome”, meaning he is able to move nothing but his left eye. About ten minutes into the film his left eye must be sewn shut to prevent it from drying up, and the scene contains no blood, no sound, no scary music, but it’s more scary and carries more emotion than all of “The Eye” put together. Bauby sits there horrified as a doctor calmly tells him he’s going to sew his eye shut and then proceeds to do it, immediately, and there’s absolutely nothing Bauby can do about it. This early scene serves to anchor us in the scary but true notion of being trapped in one’s own body.

We soon learn that Jean-Dominique Bauby is an editor on the magazine “Elle”, in the prime of his life. Once he becomes paralyzed, he must deal with this new reality without giving up. The film plays through all the stages of grief, with a delicately human touch to them. Never once do we feel like we’re being made to cry. Director Julian Schnabel doesn’t insult his audience like that. Liberal doses of humor are sprinkled throughout, as we’re privy to “Jean-Do’s” thoughts and laugh along with them as he’s helped by two attractive nurses and can’t do anything about it, lamenting, “It’s not fair!” It’s the best kind of humor, rooted in the universal experience of human tragedy while being hilarious at the same time.

Over the course of the film he must come to terms with what has happened, and I was with him every step of the way. When he finally decides to not sit around pitying himself and chooses to use his imagination to “journey to other lands” I expected something along the lines of him prancing through a field of lilies without a catatonic care in the world. But, once again, the film isn’t that pedestrian or that obvious – it conveys how he frees himself in a much more powerful way. Mathieu Almaric plays Bauby, and his ability to convey absolutely everything he needs to solely through his voice is astounding. And it’s not like in “V for Vendetta,” because Hugo Weaving could use his body to express things. Almaric has nothing but his left eye, but what he does with both that and his voice create one of the most complete characters you’ll ever see. The rest of the actors are visibly less impressive, but that’s not their fault. The only one who compares is Max von Sydow, who plays his father, and their scenes together are so incredibly touching it’s hard not to believe that they took place between a real father and son.

The cinematography should also be given credit for making Bauby’s situation come alive. For much of the movie, we merely see out from his eye, aided by voice-over work of Almaric giving us Bauby’s thoughts. Thankfully, though, we are not consistently trapped in Bauby’s head, which, though it may have been powerful, would have been very depressing and claustrophobic. When we are in his head, the camera-work is exquisite, but it’s also beautiful when we’re outside, too. We see the ocean, a large green field, an endless back country road. It’s all gorgeous and breathtaking and moving and wonderful.

On a simple level, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is about the triumph of the human spirit over great adversity. But to boil down the film to this level would be doing a great wrong to it, because it is so much more, and uncovering the layers in this wonderfully woven tapestry is part of the joy of embarking on Jean-Do’s life with him. Yes, at times it may seem like the film drags; you wonder why this or that scene wasn’t cut, as some don’t seem to serve much purpose other than to drive home the already-obvious sadness of the situation. By the end of the film you may also feel exhausted, after having been taken on such a wearying journey with this individual. But the innate power behind the story, aided all the more because it’s true, propels you forward. You WANT to know how it ends. You WANT to stick with Jean-Do and not give up. You WANT him to not give up. This is one of the most unique moviegoing experiences you’ll ever have. It is simply gorgeous.


2 Responses to “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (9/10)”

  1. Found your blog via your comment on Looking Closer. Looking forward to reading more!

  2. H. M. Charlton Says:

    I loved “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, but the movie I’d rather see is “My Stroke of Insight”, which is the amazing bestselling book by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. It is an incredible story and there’s a happy ending. She was a 37 year old Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke in the left half of her brain. The story is about how she fully recovered, what she learned and experienced, and it teaches a lot about how to live a better life. Her TEDTalk at TED dot com is fantastic too. It’s been spread online millions of times and you’ll see why!

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