Thursday, August 22

Screen Scene: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”


At the age of 43, former French Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby awoke hazily to a room full of doctors and was told that they had saved his life. However, though he had survived a stroke, it had left him completely paralyzed with the exception of a single eye.

Julian Schnabel, who was awarded best director for his work on the film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” at the Cannes Film Festival, delicately and beautifully transforms the memoir that Bauby composed by blinking out letters of the alphabet months before his death. The text itself is highly literary, as Bauby was an extremely deft writer, even while suffering from locked-in syndrome, and many of his exact words are used in the screenplay, spoken with convincing humanity by actor Mathieu Amalric.

In his strong, disembodied voice, Amalric as Bauby pronounces his regretful thoughts in a voice-over: “Had I been blind and deaf, or did it take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature?” Bauby’s words reflect the philosophical self-realization of his former incapacity to relate to his family and lovers that defines so much of the movie.

At times Schnabel takes the liberty of embellishing the plot beyond the content of Bauby’s book. Much time is spent dwelling upon Bauby’s relationship with several women, from his attractive speech therapist to his current girlfriend who cannot bear to visit him and his ex-wife who stays by his side. Though chancing a decline into generic cinema by departing from the text, Schnabel instead emphasizes subtle themes of the book and enhances Bauby’s quiet pride coupled with his fear of death that is buried beneath his sorrowful yet sardonic narrative.

The primarily first-person cinematography, which introduces the viewer to the story and characters through Bauby’s perspective, captures the terribly claustrophobic condition that trapped Bauby within his own body. His horror, frustration and despair are best embodied in a scene in which a doctor is sewing up Bauby’s septic eye. With each heartbeat and each time the needle penetrates his flesh, his unheard protests and his whispered death wish are only evident to Bauby and his audience, and impersonally overlooked by his hasty doctor.

Bauby’s story is remarkable not only because he learned to accept his physical state but also because he was able to realize, with the help of his still-devoted ex-wife, his children, and determined doctors and therapists, that to truly transcend the limits of his condition, he must not merely cope with his impaired existence. Rather, he must rise beyond his own broken body, battling depression, self-pity and resentment, and instead grasp the pureness of life and self-expression.

Using his memories and imagination to free him from his physical prison, Bauby finds a broader world within his own mind than he had ever had amid his successes as an editor. He wrote, “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set off for Tierra del Fuego, or for King Midas’ Court.”

““ Jessica Lum

E-mail Lum at [email protected]

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