The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
The Life of the Mind (on Film)

I predict that this film will be another powerful foreign movie that few will see. And that will be an utter tragedy.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the autobiographical photoplay of Jean-Dominique Bauby. He was at one time the consummate playboy, an exceedingly clever man of the world, editor of Elle magazine in Paris. He was also inexplicably stricken with a massive stroke that put him into a three-week coma. When he awoke, he was completely paralyzed from head to toe. And with the exception of a fully-functioning left eye, he moves not—and Jean-Do’s right eye is sewn shut to prevent a septic condition. From the moment he wakes up from his coma, he is not able to communicate in any way other than to blink his remaining eye.

Mathieu Amalric as Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The film is based on Bauby’s most unusual autobiography, which he dictated letter by letter by blinking his eye. A nurse who was charged with improving his communication ability developed an acrostic alphabet which starts with the most common letters of the alphabet and descends (in order of French usage). As she recited letters, Bauby would blink when the desired letter was reached. In this painstaking way he wrote an entire book about his experiences, his pain, his joys, and some of the most profound observations on human existence. He mocks himself and his doctors. He compares his feelings of being manhandled by doctors to that of gangsters loading a dead body into the trunk of a car.

As the film opens, we experience the confusion and anger that Jean-Do is feeling immediately following the stroke. He does not even know what has happened to him. He is informed that he is in a hospital due to a catastrophic stroke. It takes some time for him to imagine that he is even alive. The biggest shock is that no one can hear him speak, even though he thinks he is speaking out loud. His face is almost totally paralyzed, too.

His aggressive sarcasm is a refreshing addition to a horrible situation. We hear his thoughts, but the film creatively takes us into that same confusing world. As Jean-Do comes to terms with his condition, the story begins to soar, as Jean-Do’s prodigious imagination tells such a tremendous story. His memories are vivid and his emotion is compelling. His ability to dictate his story via his soaring intellect and uncontrollable emotions—if expressed only through the simple act of blinking his thoughts letter by letter—is a wonder of human achievement rivaling any of the man-made wonders of the world. The screenplay does credit to Mssr Bauby’s creativity and grace.

The camera work is also absolute perfection. We see the world from the fuzzy and parallax view of Bauby as through his single eye and immovable head. This perspective dominates the film almost until the halfway point, where we begin to see him in his chair and interacting with friends and family. Filmed with copious flashbacks, the story is told as it unfolds letter by letter. The sense of time passing is strong. The cinematic technique employed enables us to get the feeling of “Locked-in Syndrome,” the horrifying reality of an entirely active mind locked into an inert and immovable body.

The greatest irony I see in this film is that a man of success and privilege maintains his creative edge in the direst of circumstances. What is the irony? Observe the self-absorbed pettiness that makes up our American culture, a shallowness fed by privilege and leisure. Here is a man who went from chasing nothing but his own desires, saying, “I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe,” to a humble creative soul who tries to make the best of his situation by using the only tools he has: a lively imagination, a providential sense of humor, and a good eye for a story. Which man is better off?

This film is a masterwork by Julian Schnabel. His sensitivity to the subject matter was no doubt inspired by the sheer unimaginable work of genius and persistence exhibited by Bauby and writing assistant (Claude), his speech therapist (Marie), and Henriette—who came up with the way for Bauby to dictate his memoirs. The film handles this difficult subject in creative and comedic ways. Schnabel brings a rare ability to make a film out of an inert subject.

Why is it that God allows these types of things to happen? I cannot answer that question.

But I see the hand of God in what Jean-Dominique accomplishes with the mere blink of an eye. The human spirit is amazing. And if visual works of art such as this film are any indication, human imagination and passionate creativity will never be frustrated. We can take comfort in this: Bauby was not stricken in vain. As catastrophic as it was for him, his immoveable life inspires me to continue on, despite my own unique difficulties. His life should inspire us all. This film, and this example of the will to create, overwhelmed me. Highly recommended, highly.

The film says nothing directly about Bauby’s faith or beliefs. But God used this man, and the creators of this film, to show us that there is more to life than our mere comfort.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is rated PG-13 for “nudity, sexual content and some language.” The nudity goes by pretty quickly. I guess you could say it has about what you would expect of a foreign film. But the story is amazingly hopeful despite the melancholy nature of Bauby’s illness. I think every potentially spoiled teenager should see this film. Go with them, though; you’ll have some explaining to do.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Mike attended a promotional screening of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.