I saw the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a few weeks ago and I’m still thinking about it — a sign for me of good movie. It is about the unfortunate stroke of Jean Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle, which left him paralyzed and with “locked-in” syndrome at age 43 — unable to move except for his left eyelid. His speech therapist devised a way for him to communicate by blinking his eye when a certain letter was spoken as she ran down a list of most commonly used letters. Once the letter was established, she could guess what word he was trying to say and he would blink when she got it right. His family and friends could also communicate with him this way
He describes his condition similar to being “locked-in” a diving bell and the weight of it all holding him down but it was his imagination that he describes as the butterfly, which lifted him up out of the reality of his situation and gave him a reason to live. The movie is based on the memoir that he wrote with a translator using his new method of communication. It took a full year to complete before his untimely death due to pneumonia, just after his book was published.
As movies tend to do however, I was disappointed to learn that it wasn’t the accurate story, as described in this Salon article by Beth Arnold. It is interesting to know the real story and how his girlfriend was his true support and not the mother of his children as portrayed in the movie. I was even more fascinated in Julian Schnabel, the director’s ability to realistically film the story from Bauby’s point of view and as seen from his own eyes. Mathieu Almaric, the actor who plays Bauby, was in a sound proof box and delivered his dialogue as he witnesses the action taking place as it is happening from the camera man’s perspective. The other actors relate to the camera as if it is Bauby. As indirect as this acting is, it creates a very realistic sense of real time, up-close action. The camera men even use their thumbs over the camera lens to artificially create blinking, which works.
Not only was the camera work, directing and acting innovative but the message was positive and uplifting, despite Bauby ultimately dying in the end. By the power of his imagination and strength of will he was able to take flight from his physical condition and live fully during his remaining days, as well as create a journalistic piece of art that has been transformed into this wonderful film.