The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I was recently reprimanded by a co-worker at my office holiday party. He told me, “You used to be interesting. You used to know about all the cool small independent films and off-off-Broadway plays. Now all you ever go to is dance stuff.” So, in an effort to revisit my days as an “interesting” person, over the holidays I went to see a little independent film, which I really liked.

The movie, based on the book of the same name, tells the true story of the Editor-in-Chief of French Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a massive stroke in 1995 and was henceforth in a “locked-in” state. This horrendously frightening situation means he was completely paralyzed throughout his entire body, and could not speak, but could still hear, see, and understand everything happening around him. The sole part of his body that was not paralyzed was his left eye and eyelid and, through the help of an ingenious speech therapist, he learned to communicate by blinking that one lid. Basically, the therapist devised this method where she would begin reciting letters of the alphabet to him, beginning not with “a” but with the most often used letters, such as “r,” “n,” etc. (think “Wheel of Fortune”, not that I watch the show…). When she arrived at the letter contained in a word he needed to express his thought, he would blink and she would write down the letter. They went along this way until he had an entire sentence. It sounds extremely cumbersome, but he was able to write his entire memoir this way. And it wasn’t really as time-consuming as it would seem: just like with your cell phone when you go to text message, the therapist would be able to figure out the entire word based on the initial letters long before she had to go through the entire alphabet.

Anyway, I found both this method of communication and watching how Bauby’s friends and family react to him as well as the way he deals with his situation simply fascinating. Director Julian Schnabel included a bunch of flashbacks to Bauby’s life pre-stroke, as this flashy womanizing powerhouse of a fashion editor, which I guess makes sense, because it’s such an obvious contrast, but I actually found those to be the most boring parts of the film. The present, with this man confined to a wheelchair hooked up to an IV and a breathing machine receiving visitors and learning to communicate (and giving us his often rather satirically amusing thoughts through a voice-over) was just captivating. And the actor who played Bauby, Mathieu Amalric, was beyond amazing. The acting job he did with that left eye — whoa!

And his voice-overs are hiliarious. At one point his friend comes to visit and he’s trying like hell to get the hang of the communication method. But of course he keeps looking at the letters on the page that he’s supposed to recite and in what order, so he keeps missing Bauby’s blinks at the proper letter. “You have to look at me, you idiot,” Bauby yells, without being heard by the offending friend of course. And it’s such a human thing to do, because who can remember the order of letters you’re supposed to recite? That same friend also keeps pacing back and forth while speaking his thoughts, which I do all the time. But Bauby can’t move his head, which sits still in the wheelchair’s frighteningly enormous padded headrest, and he can’t see through his right eye, so, with the camera situated through his vantage point, we see the friend mumbling first off-screen to the left, then off-screen to the right, popping every so often into view. “He can’t see you…” a nurse finally calls out, and the friend yells, “oh shit, oh shit.” You feel both the extreme frustration of Bauby as well as the annoyance and embarrassment of the friend for screwing up.

My only qualm is that, for an artist, Schnabel can really be annoyingly literal with those voice-overs. At the beginning, we see the operating room through Bauby’s working eye. The doctor asks him, “can you tell me your name?” Bauby answers. The doctor again says, “your name, can you tell me your name?” Again, Bauby answers. “It’s okay,” the doctor says, “it just takes time. It’ll come to you.” Bauby says dejectedly, “they can’t hear me.” But he hardly needs to; we get it! Later, two technicians from the phone company come to install a phone in Bauby’s room so he can “talk” through the speech therapist to friends and family. They manage to get in without going through reception, and they begin asking Bauby, in his bed, where to place the phone, until they take one look at his completely immobile body and extremely animated left eye and become thoroughly bemused. Just then the nurse arrives, furious that they’re in the room without her permission, and explaining he can’t talk. The workers regard each other, thinking the obvious. One hesitantly asks her why then he needs the phone, and the other says under his breath that he must be a heavy breather. We hear three people laughing — the two workers and Bauby himself, but then Schnabel has Bauby say anyway, via voice-over, to the nurse’s horrified face, “Henriette, you have no sense of humor.” But by this point in the film, we’re well used to the sound of Bauby’s voice, and his laugh, so we don’t need the added obvious commentary.

Anyway, it’s a really fascinating movie and I think it’s going to do well at the Golden Globes. I may even pick up the book; from some of the voice-overs it sounds really beautifully poetic.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation, Tonya. I haven’t seen that film yet (it takes forever for most of the really good films to get out to Long Island) but as soon as it hits one of our theaters, I’ll give it a try. And just for the record, your co-worker should have his head examined – you are a very interesting person even if you never went to see another small indie film in your life.

  2. Thanks Bob! He was generally kidding, but I guess he just got tired of hearing about my dance adventures 🙁 …

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