It is a slow agony...

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is harrowing. Director Julian Schnabel brings us so skillfully into this sad true story that we are left in silent despair when it is over. The film is an absorbing ordeal of a grim reality. I doubt that anything like it has been done before.

            In the opening scene, we see a man in a hospital bed, paralyzed completely, victim of a rare event called a “locked-in”stroke. He is Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) the vital, cosmopolitan, editor of Elle Magazine. He is 43. One eye must be sewn closed for lack of liquid, the lid of his other contains the only viable muscle left in his body. He can blink once for yes, two for no. As an artist, director Schnabel creates effectively the noisy, invasive chaos that surrounds the silent man. Only one old friend, in a parade of individuals who consider him invisible, lingers to talk directly to him.

            Director Schnabel shows us most of the movie through Jean Do’s one, often unfocused, eye. We will see his physical world (excepting a few flashbacks), and we will hear his emotional world – entirely focused - through the internal comments he makes to himself. No one around him can hear a word because he cannot make a sound. It is slow agony.

            Though neither his imagination nor his memory is impaired, he is entombed with both. He can only watch the people who pass through his life: a harsh doctor, his children, their mother, and a brave friend. Any visit is an ordeal for them and for him. What can they say when he can’t answer? As he watches from a wheelchair on the beach, the wind ruffles his children’s hair and his wife’s dress blows very gently in the breeze. Their fluidity in the breeze, his rigid self.

            The one who does understand that Jean-Do’s mind functions perfectly is the extraordinary Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze). She is the physical therapist who responds by repeating the alphabet over and over, encouraging him to spell, one letter at a time. With a spiritual patience that transcends compassion, Henriette transcribes the book he writes by responding to her cues. Never once can he convey the emotion that is so alive in his mind. The articulate, witty man who fashions marvelous phrases from his thoughts, cannot move a muscle or say a word.

            We spend an extended visit in the company of a man whose limbs and muscles are rigid, whose mind still works in fluid beauty. When the screen goes dark, we are surprised, in the collective of the audience, to find ourselves sitting in a kind of taut tension that reflects the tragedy of what we have seen. The book was published as “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly;” this is the movie that came from it, and it is the product of the entombed but vital mind of a very brave man.


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