Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Directed by Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby the editor of French Elle who is left paralyzed by a stroke. The start of the movie is shot from Bauby's perspective as he wakes from a coma and is informed by his doctors that he's had a stroke, and that he's suffering from a rare condition called locked-in syndrome in which the person is physically paralyzed but their brain--thoughts, memories, etc. are all functioning normally. In those first shots, we hear Bauby's inner thoughts, and you feel his frustration and desperation as he answers the doctor's questions, only to realize he can't speak, and they can't hear him. In hopes of helping him to communicate, a speech therapist at the hospital devices a method of communication in which she would recite letters off a frequency-based alphabet and he would blink his left eye (the right eye had to be sewn shut) to select the letter he wanted, repeating the process until the word and ultimately the sentence was completed. As Bauby says in the movie, other than his eye the only other two things which weren't paralyzed were his imagination and his memory and it is to those beacons which he turns to in his darkest hours in hopes of finding a measure of peace. It's through his imagination that he can escape from the prison that is his body, and "live out his childhood dreams and adult ambitions." As the movie progresses, the view point of the camera broadens and we actually see Bauby as others see him. As he begins to communicate, Bauby decides to write a book - a memoir - of his life and so begins the slow and tedious process of communicating letter by letter, word by word, his thoughts and memories to a transcriber. The movie is moving, enlightening, and heartbreaking all at once--your heart breaks with Bauby when he can't hug his kids, you feel his helplessness at having to be bathed by others like a child, and you feel his strength and determination to tell his story--to live. Bauby's story exemplifies the strength and resiliency of the human spirit, and the movie conveys that message beautifully. Of particular note is the phenomenal performance by Mathieu Amalric as Bauby, who's limited facial expressions still manage to impart such depth of emotion.