Wednesday, February 1, 2012

100 Movies - No. 29: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

29. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Drama, Biography, 112 minutes, French Language
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Starring Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Amalric) was the editor of Elle magazine and this details the story of how he suffered a stroke and found a way to give meaning to the remainder of his life. American director Julian Schnabel decided to shoot it in French as it would feel more authentic.

The film isn't for everyone. The subject matter can be perceived as extremely sad, but it can also be considered uplifting. The pacing is slow at times to reflect the painful process of teaching Bauby how to communicate. After his stroke, he was only able to move his left eye. He couldn't swallow, smile, or move any other part of his body. The only other things which weren't taken away were his memories and imagination.

One of the reasons that the film works so well is that it shows us the world from Bauby's viewpoint. Images are sometimes blurred or skewed. If someone isn't in his direct line of sight, we don't see them. This has the effect of making us feel as though it has happened to us and that we are suffering from locked-in syndrome. Schnabel allows us to hear Bauby's thoughts and that's another masterstroke. Some thoughts reflect his anger and frustration, but others show his lively sense of humor.

Bauby is attended by a variety of nurses and therapists. These scenes always make me feel grateful for being healthy and give me an appreciation for those who devote their lives to helping others. One therapist develops a system to communicate with Bauby. She lists the letters of the alphabet in order of those most commonly used, then asks Bauby to blink when she reaches the correct letter. Imagine how much patience would be required.

We find out that Bauby had intended to write a book before his stroke and he communicates to his agent that he would like to honor his contract. He decides to write about his experiences. The diving bell refers to his sense of isolation, while the butterfly refers to the freedom he feels when he uses his imagination. Like 127 Hours, Diving Bell uses a number of techniques to allow to audience to escape from Bauby's confinement. We are shown real memories and also some of his dreams and fantasies.

Bauby's achievement in dictating a book by blinking his eye is extraordinary. It says a lot about the determination of the human spirit and shows that every life has the potential to be worth something.

If you can handle subtitles, sadness, and slow pacing, the film is a rewarding experience.

If you like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly:

I have already mentioned that 127 Hours uses similar techniques to expand a story in which the main character is stuck in one place. Another film about someone coping with extreme handicap is My Left Foot, starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

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