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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Carr, Coeli

doi: 10.1097/01.NNN.0000300607.13197.fb
Department: the Waiting Room: Screening Room


(Focus Features, 2007; in French, with subtitles)

Strokes can cause varying degrees of disability. However, you probably won't be prepared for the level of confinement meticulously described in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The film tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a fashion magazine editor in Paris who, after his stroke and subsequent coma at the age of 43, was totally paralyzed except for the muscles in his left eye.

Directed by Julian Schnabel (whose work here netted him the top director award at Cannes), the film is shot from the point of view and through the eyes of Bauby, portrayed by Mathieu Amalric. Bauby hears everything—including the horrifyingly dire prognosis of his doctors about his fate to live in this “locked-in” syndrome indefinitely while his intellect and imagination remain indelibly sharp. His awareness that the life he once knew is over is represented by the recurring image running through his head of being trapped in a diving bell, an old-fashion underwater suit, sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

What the film also conveys—magnificently—is Bauby's triumph in achieving communication. One caregiver creates a system that involves speaking the letters of the alphabet, which allows Bauby to blink when the sound he wants is spoken. Stringing those sound-representations together, although time consuming, allows him to create sentences. The miracle is that Bauby dictated an entire book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (on which the film is based) using this blink system. The symbolic butterfly of the title is the unfettered, sky-bound antithesis of the leaden diving gear. Bauby died days after his book was published in 1996, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a testament to the power of the imagination to transcend the confines of illness.

Although much of the film's content is somber, with Amalric giving an unselfconscious and deglamorized portrayal of an extreme invalid state, we see the relentless spirit of several women, including the mother of his children, a former lover, and various therapists at the facility in Normandy where he was cared for. Those who are caregivers to loved ones who have suffered strokes will draw strength from watching what one man accomplished because people refused to give up on him, which allowed Bauby not to give up on himself.

Coeli Carr

Copyright © 2007, AAN Enterprises, Inc.