#162 The Diving Bell & The Butterfly

Le scaphandre et le papillon
(2007, Julian Schnabel)

“Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralysed: my imagination and my memory”

In 1995, the editor of Elle magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, suffered a severe stroke and fell into a coma. After 20 days, he finally awoke, but while his mind was intact, his body was not. Entirely paralysed save for his left eye, he was a victim of “locked-in” syndrome, where a patient essentially becomes trapped inside a useless body. Not letting this get to him, he managed to “dictate” an entire memoir entirely through the help of a speech therapist, a series of blinks and a frequency-ordered French alphabet.

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly is the movie adaptation of this memoir. It depicts Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) as he wakes up from his coma and tries to deal with his new life with locked-in syndrome. As well as detailing his experiences with the condition and the writing of the memoir, the movie also flashes back to his previous life, and presents us with important events from his past.

All I can say about this movie is simply…wow. There have been an awful lot of movies that I’ve reviewed lately that have been decidedly average and I’ve struggled to write reviews for them, so it’s certainly nice to have a movie turn up that just floored me with its emotional impact.

The first thing the movie does is make extensive use of a first-person perspective, shot through the view of Bauby’s still-working eye. By putting us inside Bauby’s head for so much of the running time, we feel close to him. We get to see his limited perspective from his bed-ridden position, and we get to hear his inner dialogue. It’s the key to helping us identify with this character and his plight. We feel his frustration when his inner dialogue can’t be heard by other characters, or when he wants to move forward to something in the distance but can’t. It’s such a simple way of framing the movie, and I can’t see how the movie could have been done otherwise.

That said, the movie isn’t entirely first-person. As Bauby starts writing his memoir and finding a way to communicate, we move out of his head and see the world around him more. This actually works on a symbolic level, since the shift seems to happen almost as soon as he realises that he still has his imagination and memory and feels “free” as a result. We also begin to see more flashbacks to make this transition easier, as if Bauby’s memories really are his strength.

The acting is phenomenal across the board. Amalric is fantastic as Bauby both before and after the stroke, and both Marie-Josée Croze and Emmanuelle Seigner managed to pull a lot out of their admittedly limited roles as Bauby’s speech therapist and ex-girlfriend respectively. In fact, Seigner’s role is pretty heart-breaking to watch at times, especially when she has to dictate for a phone call with Bauby’s mistress. But the real star here has to be Max Von Sydow as Bauby’s father. The scene where he rings the hospital to try and “talk” to his paralysed son is one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. What’s that? Oh I just have something in my eye…

I know it sounds like I’m being a little over-the-top in my emotional reaction to this movie and not looking at it more objectively, but it’s hard to come at this from a less emotional perspective. It’s a movie that challenges us and tries to make us understand how difficult it must be to live with locked-in syndrome. Done badly, it could have been a cloying, overly-sentimental mush, but this was done so very right.

OK, there are some issues. There are scenes hammering home the relevance of the title that can get a little too much. Yes, his body’s a diving bell, but do we need to keep seeing Bauby imagining himself yelling from inside the real thing? Once would have been enough, but the image keeps popping up. The respective “butterfly” imagery that crops up when he realises that his spirit is still free only really gets seen once, so why not its equivalent?

It also had a tendency to get a little confusing with the subtitles, but there’s little that could have been done about this. Quite often when dictating the memoir, we’ll audibly hear an M or a J in French, while the subtitle says it’s a T or an I instead, purely because the entire word’s getting translated as it’s being spelled. A particularly jarring example is when Bauby manages to spell out “death” using just four letters (since the French is “mort”). But this is a language barrier issue more than anything else.

Overall, The Diving Bell & The Butterfly was a very moving film that manages to avoid being too overly sentimental, and absolutely essential for anyone with a heart.

Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny & Max von Sydow
Written by Jean-Dominique Bauby (memoir) & Ronald Harwood
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy & Jon Kilik
Music by Paul Cantelon
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Juliette Welfling

Favourite Scene: Bauby’s father ringing the hospital and breaking down when he realises he can never truly talk to his son in the same way ever again.
Scene That Bugged Me: Yes, I get it. Diving bell. Well done. Stop showing the metaphor.

Watch it if: You’re curious about locked-in syndrome
Avoid it if: You think it’s about an actual diver

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Posted on March 9, 2013, in 2000s, Biopic, Drama, France. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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