Since I have just received my DVD of this great film, I thought I’d re-post the review I wrote at The Global Sociology Blog.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a wonderful and harrowing adaptation of the book of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby (“Jean-Do”, as everyone calls him). Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor of the French fashion magazine Elle when, at 43, he had a major stroke that put him in a coma for three weeks. When he finally regained consciousness, he was suffering from a rare condition named “locked-in syndrome”: his mind was intact but he was completely paralyzed, from head to toe.
The only part of him that worked and could be used to communicate was his left eyelid. At the hospital, he started working with a speech therapist who composed an alphabet where the letter order was based on frequency of use. The therapist would read the letters to him and he would blink when she got to the letter he wanted. With that laborious method, he managed to write a book that got published ten days before he died.
The film opens in a fashion reminiscent of another film – Johnny Got his Gun – with a subjective point of view. For the first half-hour, we see from Bauby’s perspective: the blurriness of things as he emerges from the coma, his disorientation and fear when he is explained what has happened to him, his horror when his right eye is sewn shut to prevent infection (which felt to me like a reverse version of the eye slashing in Bunuel’s Chien Andalou). This first part also introduces us to a major aspect of Bauby, his wandering eye (note how many beautiful women come to take care of him… it truly is a French film! :-)) and womanizing. This exposition and self-realization of his true self is conveyed by the visual metaphor of a collapsing glacier.
This first part is, for me, the most intense part of the film. It feels claustrophobic, destabilizing and terrifying. This intense beginning serves to attach us to the character, with all his flaws (and they are numerous) so that we don’t recoil when we finally see him, in his deteriorated state. This corresponds to the point when he decides against self-pity and to reclaim the still-human part of him.
This is not, though, just the nth iteration of the “triumph of human spirit”, otherwise, I would have been bored and annoyed watching it. Bauby knows it’s too late to make amends for past mistakes. But because his existence is now suspended, he spends his time in-between his two states: the diving bell, drowning him down with his memory, and the butterfly, liberating his imagination, out of which he will write the book.
The film is then divided between the flashback sequences where we get a glimpse of what his self-indulgent life was like, the fantasies he imagines, and the many interactions with the people who care for him, his former partner and mother of his children, his therapists, doctors, and colleagues. But, to me, the most interesting interactions are with his father and with Pierre Roussin. Bauby had agreed to give Roussin his seat on a flight which then got hijacked and Roussin became hostage in Beirut for over four years.
Most of all, the film is funny. Bauby is the same when he wakes up from his coma as he was before: snarky, sarcastic, self-indulgent and he never misses an opportunity to take a peak at an open cleavage. He never loses his sense of humor. There is neither uplifting or inspiring lesson here (thank goodness for that) nor happy ending. But it is a very intense film. Highly recommended.