To watch the world outside a shell,
One window in a tiny cell—
Is this mere pain or is this hell?
‘Tis hell if I but make it so.
While others pity, I must know
That self alone brings spirits low.
From out my shell, my soul must fly
Through fancy, passion, mind, and eye
Before my body dares to die.
I’d view the lives of others crossed
By tragedy and tempest-tossed,
And value things they have not lost.
The world is cruel, yet majesty
Is found in places hard to see,
And both extremes have staggered me.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for two brief scenes with topless women)
There are some movies that remind you how blessed you are and how grateful you ought to be. Films like Cast Away and Room show us people deprived of life as usual, and things once taken for granted gain far greater value when they are reclaimed. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly may lack such recovery of normal life, yet the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby made me value everything he lost so suddenly.
Formerly the editor of Elle magazine, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) suffered a sudden stroke in 1995, awakening after a twenty-day coma to discover that his entire body was paralyzed except for his left eye, a rare condition called “locked-in syndrome.” The film begins as he wakes up, and the camera’s first-person view lets the audience hear Bauby’s thoughts and see what he sees. It reminded me a lot of the season 7 M*A*S*H episode “Point of View,” where the audience sees the typical M*A*S*H operations through the eyes of a wounded soldier. As in that episode, doctors and visitors speak directly to the camera, delivering bad news and hollow encouragement alike. Although flashbacks and third-person views are more prevalent later on, a good chunk of the film is furnished through Bauby’s perspective, which is uncannily effective, such as when the screen blinks to portray Bauby’s only means of communication or when his right eyelid is unnervingly sewn shut to prevent infection.
I can envision a present-day version of this story turning into a pro-euthanasia tale bemoaning his pitiful quality of life, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is thankfully instead a reminder of the humanity hidden behind Bauby’s withered form. Amalric does a fine job, both in the pre-stroke sequences and his rigid paralysis afterward, managing to convey emotion with just one eye, even more minimalist acting than Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Hearing his thoughts reminds us that there is still an active mind behind the expressionless face, one able to think, compose, regret, gripe, and even laugh at himself now and then. At one point, Bauby does wish for death, only to have his nurse scold him for even considering it, urging him to remember everyone who still cares about him. Plus, despite being called a vegetable, he shows the initiative of writing the memoir on which the film is based, dictated a letter at a time by blinking with a special alphabet method and a very patient nurse. Although he points out the ineffectiveness of prayers offered for him by his children and various religious groups, even Bauby ends up acknowledging the reality of miracles.
The other actors playing friends, loved ones, and nurses are also phenomenal, from Emmanuelle Seigner as the still-devoted mother of Bauby’s children (whom he regrets not marrying) to Anne Consigny and Marie-Josée Croze as his faithful nurses/therapists. Moving comparisons are made between Bauby’s situation and that of a friend who was imprisoned by terrorists, as well as of his apartment-bound father (Max von Sydow), and an indirect phone call between Bauby and his father is particularly emotional.
I’m typically not a fan of films like this with artsy editing and high-minded metaphors, but it doesn’t come off as pretentious here. There’s plenty of symbolic imagery, like collapsing ice-shelves or the diving suit and butterfly of the title, which seem to represent Bauby’s confinement and the freedom of his imagination, respectively. The Oscar-nominated cinematography is luminous and frequently out of focus when seen through Bauby’s vision, and the first-person views really exhibit the talents of the cast. Bauby’s dream sequences and flashbacks serve more of a purpose than escaping his affliction; they manifest the simple things he once took for granted: a sumptuous meal, a passionate kiss, a mere drive through the countryside, things we forget to value until they’re gone.
Deservingly nominated for four Oscars, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a paean to life and empathy, to the selflessness of nurses and caretakers, to the bright side of a wretched situation. Despite the sadness of it, the film’s end fosters a unique sense of inspiration, reinforced by the rewound images played over the credits to the song “Ramshackle Day Parade” (worthy of my End Credits Song Hall of Fame). One wonders why such a terrible thing would happen to someone, but the way Bauby’s story ends, I can’t help but wonder if it was simply to supply the world with a much-needed tale of encouragement amid adversity.
Best line: (Roussin) “Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you’ll survive.”
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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