The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Date: May 30, 2008
Location: Clifton Living Room

This is a film I avoided for awhile because it fell into the “want to have seen it” category. So now that I’ve seen it, I’m glad I did, but I wouldn’t choose to ever see it again.

Director Julian Schnabel does a wonderful job of putting the audience in the body (and mind) of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French Elle editor who suffered a stroke and became almost completely paralyzed. Bauby’s only means of communication is through blinking his one good eye (take that, Christy Brown!) and with the help of his saintly, beautiful speech therapist, he is able to not only communicate but write a best-selling memoir.

The book (which I haven’t read) and movie are often described as uplifting despite the grim subject matter. I didn’t get that. I couldn’t help but feel Bauby was trapped in a perpetual hell, the butterfly of his imagination be damned. This reaction is underscored by Schnabel’s frequent tactic of shooting the film from behind Bauby’s eye… so the screen blinks when he does, and people are slightly offscreen and out of focus. There are jarring moments when we leave this perspective and the camera is set free along with Bauby’s imagination — memories of time spent with his lovers and children, vivid dreams, flights of fancy.

Powerful stuff, no question. But despite the stellar film making, great soundtrack and moving performances (Emmanuelle Seigner is a particular standout as the mother of Bauby’s children), I was glad when the film was over. In a way, that’s a testament to the film’s power (and the resonance of Bauby’s story). But ultimately I want to be entertained, even by a tragedy, and on that front Diving Bell falls short.

5 thoughts on “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

  1. mom says:

    I agree with you that I wouldn’t want to watch this movie again even though I’m glad I saw it. I can understand Dad’s feeling about it being too depressing to watch and I’m glad I didn’t encourage him to see it with me.

  2. Amy says:

    I take issue with the way Clay uses the label “uplifting” in such a dismissive manner. While I’ve watched only a handful of scenes from the film, I have read the memoir several times and find it “uplifting” in the most meaningful way. Certainly what Bauby experienced was, as Clay points out, a perpetual hell, but his desire, willingness, even need, to transcend that hell to create art is what inspires me. The human need to communicate, in this case defying the most impossible barriers imaginable, is tremendously powerful. That Bauby did it so poetically, capturing moments both profound and simple, such as his aching need to sweep his son’s hair out of his face, for instance, makes his accomplishment all the more powerful.

    So, yes, I do find Bauby’s story uplifting. It is precisely that he allowed himself to want to create art while trapped in the shell of his immobile body that uplifts us. Would we, too, be able to transcend our hell to leave such a lasting testament? That is the question each reader (viewer?) can’t help but wonder. We fear the answer is no, hope the answer is yes, and marvel at each of the 144 pages that Jean-Do painstakingly “wrote.”

  3. Clay says:

    I’ll be curious to see if you have the same response to the film. As much as Schnabel tries to put viewers in Bauby’s position, there is no way it can compare to reading the man’s own painstakingly blinked-out words. And while Bauby’s writing of the book is certainly covered as a plot point in the film, it isn’t treated as a transcendent act of defiant creativity. It’s depicted as what he does in between visits from his loved ones.

    Viewers of the film are asked to marvel more at the creative genius of Julian Schnabel than that of Jean-Dominique Bauby.

  4. Amy says:

    Fair enough. I’m going to try to watch the film tonight. I’ll weigh in with a film specific analysis once I’ve seen the whole thing. That said, the several scenes I have watched did not disappoint me or suggest that the film did less justice to Bauby’s defiant creativity than the book did. After all, it’s an adaptation – it wouldn’t exist but for the memoir.

  5. Francis J. Schiffer says:

    I loved “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, but the movie I’d rather see is “My Stroke of Insight”, which is the amazing bestselling book by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. It is an incredible story and there’s a happy ending. She was a 37 year old Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke in the left half of her brain. The story is about how she fully recovered, what she learned and experienced, and it teaches a lot about how to live a better life. Her TEDTalk at TED dot com is fantastic too. It’s been spread online millions of times and you’ll see why!

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