DVD Review: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”


How does one deal with the unexpected and the obstacles that at first seem to be insurmountable? How does one view the world after one nearly loses it? Who comes to our aid, and who stays away? These and other questions are addressed in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”.
This film is based on the book of the same name. It is the real-life story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French editor of Elle magazine, who had a devastating stroke in 1995 at age 42 that left him completely paralyzed except for his left eye. Despite this, he wrote his autobiography.

The film opens with the camera serving as the point of view of Bauby as he awakens from a coma. The frame goes in and out of focus and voices seem fleeting and difficult to pinpoint, like to one who is groggy. Intermixed with sights and sounds of medical staff are Bauby’s inner thoughts. Alarmed when he realizes he’s not speaking aloud, he becomes frantic when he understands that he has absolutely no way to communicate and thus is completely helpless.
After a neurologist determines that Bauby’s consciousness is fully functioning, by having him answer yes or no questions by blinking his good eye, he assigns a therapist to help develop a way for Bauby to talk. This was before eye gaze computers were available, so the therapist has him blink in response to recited letters of the alphabet, with the letters most commonly used listed first. In this way, one letter at a time, Bauby can form words as long as someone is watching him blink.
This is tedious and frustrating at first. Bauby’s first sentence indicates that he wants to die. He likens his paralysis to being trapped underwater in a diving bell where no one can hear him.
But over time, Bauby discovers surprising things about himself and others. The woman, whom he had deserted for another, ends up being the one who visits and brings his children to see him, while his lover is the one who cannot handle the situation. A man who had a horrible thing happen due to Bauby’s actions in the past, ends up being the most empathetic. And Bauby figures out that the therapist who is working with him can provide him with a wonderful opportunity.
Bauby at one point states that in addition to his left eye, there are two other parts of him that are not paralyzed: his memory and his imagination. He begins to feel transformed, no longer in a diving bell, but instead becoming a butterfly, able to go where he likes with his mind. He has his therapist contact his publisher to see about writing a book, because there is much he would like to say.
And we get to see where Bauby’s mind travels: good and bad events in the past and present, nightmares and daydreams. Some of his fantasies are amusing, some are poetic. I found them on the whole inspiring, a reminder of the freedom of the spirit.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is rated PG-13 in America for some nudity and mild profanity. The version I rented from Netflix was in French with English subtitles. The bonus material includes a making of a featurette, a segment on the camera effects used in the film, and a Charlie Rose interview with the director.
Jean-Dominique Bauby’s journey after his stroke is fascinating, and people with chronic illness can probably identify with some of the issues addressed. As I type this, I am grateful for the ability to do so and wonder if I would have the patience to spell out my life story in eye blinks. How many of us would?

Submitted by: Karen Brauer, Butyoudontlooksick.com, © 2008