Anyone reading my blog could probably guess I like to write. Between my blog, the newspaper I work for, and what I refer to as my side writing (fiction, poetry, screenplay), hardly a day goes by when I'm not composing words to page or screen. I must admit there are times I don't feel inspired, times when I blow off my writing, and times when I doubt my abilities. Whenever I begin to pity myself, I should remind myself of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on the memoirs of the same name written by French journalist and magazine ditor Jean-Dominique "Jean-Do" Bauby. Following a stroke, Bauby became afflicted with locked-in syndrome, a condition in which his body was completely paralyzed except for his left eyelid. His mind, unaffected, became trapped in a useless vessel. Despite this condition and with the help of speech therapists, Bauby wrote the book. As the alphabet was spoken to him in order of the most commonly used letters, Bauby would blink to formulate his thoughts. The process was long and challenging, but he managed to complete the book. Merely days after its publication in 1997, he died of pneumonia.
The film is a recreation of how Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) awoke from his stroke-induced coma, adjusted to his new condition, and ultimately wrote the book. Strictly speaking, the only physical action we can see Bauby perform in his present condition is blink, and it's the film greatest achievement that it is able to dramatize how he wrote the book and do so successfully. Like The King's Speech , the subject threatens to be incompatible to film or any visual medium, but somehow, it works. The film is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, and moving.
The first 30 minutes or so are entirely from Jean-Do's point of view. We see what he see; his limited surrounding are confined to his hospital room, the doctors and nurses who treat him, the family and friends who visit, and a few outdoor scenes. During this stretch of the film, there are no establishing shots or objective camera angles. Like Jean-Do, we only catch glimpses of the world around, and the result is a disorienting, claustrophobic, and borderline frightening experience. It's a bold strategy on the part of director Julian Schabel, but it works; the audience identifies with Jean-Do's condition. Watching his efforts to recover become a struggle we're invested in rather than a freak show we gawk at.
Eventually, Schabel breaks away from the subjective viewpoint to show Jean-Do in his surroundings and mixes in flashbacks to show his pre-stroke health. It's not pretty what's become of his body, but being around him so long and privy to his thoughts has acclimated us. The movie shows considerable strength in depicting Jean-Do as a fully-rounded character and not just as an object of pity. We follow his confusion, despair, efforts to reconnect with his family (which was already strained before his stroke), and imagination. The story of a disabled individual overcoming limitations often threatens to become a movie-of-the-week soap opera, but Jean-Do and the people in his life come off as real. Performances all around are excellent.
The human mind and body are two of the amazing machines on the planet, capable of so many incredible acts, but on the evidence of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the mind is the more impressive specimen. Even with his body deteriorated and immobile, Jean-Do, with the help of others, manages to showcase the depth of his thoughts and the vividness of his imagination. The body is the temple, but the mind is the shrine. Watching the film is a reminder of that potential.