Movie Tuesdays: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

There are few movies that I’d say I couldn’t live without.  Most movies are disposable to me and are short bits of enjoyment that are immediately consumed and rarely remembered.  However, those few movies that have made impacts on me are the ones that I consider to be special.  “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is close to perfection in my book, it does something so unique and in such a beautiful way that watching it is a new experience each and every time.

From the story, that is unlike any other, to the direction and even the actors themselves.  Each piece of the film can probably be broken down and examined but here I’ll just speak briefly about the movie that had an enormous impact on me and a film I think everyone should make an effort to watch.

Locked-in syndrome is as close to “hell” on earth as humanly imaginable for many people. Imagine for just a second; you have full consciousness of your surroundings and are completely able to formulate thoughts in your mind as many of us do.  However, you can’t talk, you can’t move, you can’t communicate with the world outside that you can clearly perceive.  I would imagine it to be likened to watching a loved one die and being unable to talk to them or hold them in their last moments.  Instead you must stand behind glass and watch the events unravel, alone, without the ability to say or do anything.

Now, if that sounds awful then this movie will be both painful and frustrating to watch but I urge you to do so.  The movie begins with a first-person look at the life of Jean-Dominique Bauby, or Jean-Do as the characters in the film call him.  Bauby awakens from his three week coma after suffering a massive stroke.  Viewers see the film, at this point, through Bauby’s left eye.  The doctor makes his way in and discusses with Bauby the extent of his stroke and what it has done to his body.  He asks Bauby to blink his eyes, say a phrase, raise his hand and so on.  Bauby’s thoughts are presented on screen as he thinks them, it’s a French film so it is subtitled, and viewers think he is talking.  While we can hear his voice he is not actually speaking to anyone.  The doctor concludes that Bauby’s massive stroke has left him with control over only his left eye and nothing else.

Hearing Bauby’s thoughts is absolutely brilliant.  Viewers can hear his frustration and his anger towards this horrible event and we learn to cope with him.  The first few minutes are difficult to be sure, watching Bauby struggle to cope with his new, and apparently permanent, situation is rough.  It get’s tougher as Bauby’s speech language therapist makes her way into his room.  She attempts to help him communicate with the outside world by reading the French alphabet in order of which letters are most common first and having Bauby blink when it is the right letter thus forming words and sentences letter by letter.  The entire process is so well done in the film as we get frustrated with Bauby as it is obviously something only the most patient people can adapt to quickly.  Bauby’s downright hatred of the idea is wonderful as it is human in both idea and practice, and again his thoughts allow us to grow closer to the man.

After a while the camera breaks away from the first person perspective of Bauby’s confined life and we start to see more of what is around him.  We begin to see into the mind of Bauby as well; we see his erotic fantasies, his dreams of beaches and mountains, and his thoughts of past events involving his family.  We learn that Bauby, if you didn’t already know, was a big-time editor for  ELLE magazine which is considered one of the biggest fashion magazines in the world.  We also see Bauby taking his son out for a drive when the stroke occurs and leaves him paralyzed for life.  This is also when we begin to see the symbols and interactions that define the film’s quality.

Watching Bauby dive into both is mind and his family is absolutely incredible.  You’ll see the family, 3 children and an unwed mother, interact with Bauby in a confusing fashion.  It all feels real and very awkward at times.  Kids wouldn’t know how to act around their father who can not communicate physically or verbally and the mother would be just as hard-pressed to find a way to act around him.  These moments of pure humanity are beautiful as you see Bauby trying to care but trapped in the body he can no longer control while his family yearns for some inkling of love from him that he never showed in his previous life.

Things begin to get even more creative and beautiful when Bauby dives into his head and decides to tackle another challenge in his current state.  As an editor at ELLE Bauby had a contract to write a book.  Originally he wanted to write a female version of The Count of Monte Cristo but in his current state he decides to write a memoir of his trapped existence.  A contractor from the publishing company is sent over and quickly dictates his words using the blinking system.

Bauby explains that he sees his life as a diving suit, trapped by a brass helmet at the ends of the ocean.  While others see him and his spirit as a butterfly hanging onto existence and life.  This becomes the focal point of his new book, with the same title as the movie, as Bauby speaks on his life and others that he sees as trapped.

I can’t give “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” enough praise but I don’t want to just go on and on about my love for the film.  The direction is fantastic as the first person filming makes us feel trapped and frustrated along with Bauby and the acting is superb.  The people feel like people and often don’t know how to act around Bauby in his current state.  And of course the story is one of human perseverance that motivates and inspires beyond imagining.  If you’re ever looking for a movie that will shake you to the core I urge you to watch “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. I’d even go so far as to lend you my copy just because I believe it to be that good.

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