"The Diving Bell
and the Butterfly" -- Part One of
Editor's note. Please
send your comments to Dave Andrusko at
Like a lot of
husbands, my first impulse is not to race to any film with subtitles. But
I've learned that my wife has exquisite taste and even better instincts, so
off we went last weekend to see, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Unlike Juno, the
movie that we discussed last Monday, The Diving Bell is only now hitting
many theatres. But like Juno, the film about a remarkable young girl and her
unplanned pregnancy, The Diving Bell has benefited from almost universally
positive reviews. (Alas, although nominated in several categories, Juno won
no Golden Globe awards last night.)
Schnabel's extraordinary adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's 1997 memoir is
a veritable gold mine for pro-lifers but is no less rich a vein for anyone
who marvels at enormous personal courage and can be stunned by a level of
devotion that is breathtaking.
Unlike me, some of you probably know the
basic outline of the story told in Bauby's memoir--an international
best-seller which has been brilliantly brought to the screen. To Americans,
Bauby is almost a caricature of the free-wheeling Frenchman, a 43-year-old
whose ego is matched only by his zest for beautiful women and his almost
complete self-absorption. The editor in chief of Elle-France, Bauby had long
since left life's fastlanes in the dust.
But then in one of
those moments that reminds us how fragile life can be, Bauby (played by
Mathieu Almaric) suffers a massive stroke. He wakes up three weeks later
wondering why the idiotic medical staff doesn't respond to his questions and
his own answers to their inquiries.
They don't "hear"
him because Bauby's stroke has left him paralyzed from head to toe,
rendering him in what doctors diagnose as a "locked-in" condition. His
speech is, literally, all in his head.
His mind is sharp
as ever but the only way he can communicate is by blinking his one good eye.
At this point, there is a question that would strike anyone: how in the
world can you make a film about such an incredible tragedy, given these
built-in limitations? I won't spoil it by telling you, but Schnabel's answer
is ingenious. (Hint: the scene where they sew his infected right eye shut is
one you will never forget, but not for reasons you'd think.)
As would anyone,
Bauby struggles not to give in to despair and depression. He staves them off
with a sardonic sense of humor and a steely will. But even that resolve
would have faltered over time had it not been for the many people who rally
behind him. Bauby is no saint, but there are people who come into his
life--or stay in his life, in spite of his abysmal treatment of them-- who
For example, there
is his speech therapist who teaches him the blinking technique that enables
him to communicate. (She reads the entire French alphabet and he blinks when
she hits the correct letter.) He masters this painfully slow technique
enough to communicate his first words: "I want death."
She is devastated and
reacts tearfully and in anger. She reminds him that there are many people
who care about him, including her, although she has known him only a short
time. She leaves the room but then comes back to apologize. Soon they are
back working. She is not about to passively sit by.
The woman who is
the mother of his three children and whom he had recently discarded is as
generous and forgiving as Bauby has been tunnel-visioned and narcissistic.
Unwilling to allow his children to come see him in his condition (he says he
looks "like something in a jar of formaldehyde"), Bauby gradually comes to
realize how much he misses them all and how much they care about him even in
his stricken condition.
When the family is
out together on the beach, although no less physically paralyzed, Bauby's
moral imagination begins to soar. When he son tenderly kisses him, it brings
to mind a scene just prior to his stroke when Bauby had done likewise for
his own 92-year-old father whose failing health has rendered him "locked-in"
in his own apartment.
A key turning point
comes early in the film. In an astonishingly insensitive (but all-too-human
a moment), a friend comes to the hospital and repeats the latest gossip:
"Have you heard? Jean-Dominique is a vegetable."
Without a hint of
self-pity, Bauby puckishly thinks to himself, "What kind of vegetable? A
carrot? A pickle?"
Bauby has been
visited by another friend who had swapped places on a plane with Bauby and
wound up spending ''several years in a darkened Beirut dungeon'' as a
hostage of Hezbollah. In a brief but powerful scene, he encourages Bauby to
hold fast to what is human inside him, which is what made it possible for
him to survive his own imprisonment and torture.
By retaining his
humanity and--thanks largely to the faithfulness of those around
him--expanding it, Bauby overcomes what would have utterly destroyed a
Bauby decides to fulfill a book contract
he had signed prior to his stroke with the aid of an assistant (another
saint-in-the-making) who is sent by his editor to take dictation. The title
of the book and movie comes from Bauby's realization that it is as though
his body is locked in an old-fashioned diving bell while his mind remains
free to fly away.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was
published on March 6, 1997, to rave reviews. Two days later Bauby died of
You might conclude from all of this that
going to the film is too depressing. Please don't, it isn't. As one observer
commented, "This picture isn't about the limits of life, but of its
Stuart did credit to the film's integrity with a tremendous paragraph that
also captures the film's tenderness.
"It is Bauby's
relationship with his father (portrayed with heartbreaking beauty by Max Von
Sydow) that conveys the film's most resonant thematic core of mortality and
familial yearning," Stuart writes. "A flashback scene shows a once-vibrant
Bauby shaving his father; the amplified sound of the razor scratching across
Sydow's neck creates an almost unbearable awareness of the aging man's
vulnerability. In a telling juxtaposition, we are then shown the
wheelchair-bound Bauby being nurtured by his own children, a piercing
reminder of how abruptly and unceremoniously the tables can turn."
No one, certainly
not me, would ever wish such a catastrophe on anyone. But it is impossible
to avoid the conclusion that the man who passed away so soon after the
publication of his slim volume of memoirs and reflections was a far more
decent, compassionate, and humane individual than the man who casually
discarded the mother of his three children and assorted mistresses.
And although he
remained a "free-thinker and anti-cleric" until the very end, we can see
that Bauby had been redeemed. Locked-in by his own pleasures and
sensibilities, ironically the rich bon vivant had been liberated by a
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