The Diving Bell And The Butterfly


Directed by: Julian Schnabel
Written by:Ronald Harwood
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, Anne Consigny, Max von Sydow
Released: February 14, 2008
Grade: A

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly is both beautiful and tragic.  It sounds like a contradiction but I don’t know how else to describe it.  Writer Ron Harwood (The Pianist) and director Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) have taken an incredibly depressing story and have used it to inspire us – to make us appreciate the value of life.

On December 8, 1995, 43-year-old French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby (Almalric) suffered a stroke and fell into a coma.  When he awoke several weeks later, he found himself lying in a hospital bed and paralysed from head to toe.  The doctor described his condition as being called “locked-in syndrome”.  Despite being conscious, Jean-Dominique could not move or speak.  He was effectively trapped in his own body.

Ask yourself the question – could you live like this or would you rather die?  I think I know what most people will say.  When Jean-Dominique’s family and friends come to visit, he just has to sit there and watch them talk.  He cannot tell them what he feels.  He cannot reach out to touch them.  He cannot even smile at them.

What if I were to tell you that this film is based on Jean-Dominique’s own words?  Would you believe me?  How could it be possible?  With the help of a speech-therapist named Henriette (Croze), Jean-Dominique developed a system of communication using the only part of his body which he had control over – his left eye.  Henriette would read out letters of the alphabet and Jean-Dominique would blink when she said the letter he wanted.  Ever so slowly, he could spell out words, sentences, paragraphs.  He could finally tell people what was going through his mind.

In 1997, his reflections on life were published in a novel called The Diving Bell & The Butterfly.  According to the internet, the book was 144 pages long.  Just think about that for a moment.  Every word in that book was written by a translator based on the blinks of a paralysed man.  I am in awe of Jean-Dominique Bauby.

The story is amazing but the way in which it has brought to the screen is equally brilliant.  For the first half of the film, we see everything through Jean-Dominique’s eyes.  All we do is look straight ahead and listen to whoever is standing there.  It’s frustrating to watch but this is exactly how Jean-Dominique would have felt.

In the second half of the film, we take a step back.  With Jean-Dominique able to communicate, the film takes on more colour and more emotion.  We reflect back on some of his most treasured memories.  There are some particularly touching scenes involving Jean-Dominique and his elderly father (played brilliantly by Max von Sydow).

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly has been nominated for four Academy Awards including best director and best adapted screenplay.  I never cry in movies but my eyes were moist by the end of this one.  It’s a film to remember.