THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (LE SCAPHANDRE ET LE PAPILLON) (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
Based on a true story, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (LE SCAPHANDRE ET LE PAPILLON) depicts 42 year-old Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby's (Mathieu Amalric) struggle to communicate after having a massive stroke. Paralyzed from head to toe, he suffers from a very rare condition known as locked-in syndrome. Brain function appears normal, but he is unable to move or speak.
Rehabilitation at the Berck-sur-Mer hospital looks to be a long, slow process for Jean-Do, as his friends call him, although he draws some comfort from having beautiful women around to assist him. Physical therapist Marie Lopez (Olatz López Garmendia) must teach him how to swallow. The slightest movement of his head is considered a major improvement. Speech therapist Henriette Durand (Marie-Josée Croze) introduces him to a method of communicating through blinking his one good eye. (His right eye has been sewn shut.) She reads the letters of the alphabet, from those most commonly used to the least. When she arrives at the one he wants, he selects it by blinking. The interminable process repeats until words and sentences are formed.
Like anyone in his situation, Jean-Do is immensely frustrated with his circumstances. His breakthough comes when he decides to stop pitying himself. Imagination and memory are still at his disposal, so he chooses to fulfill the book contract he signed before his impairment. The publisher assigns Claude (Anne Consigny) to take his dictation for a novel about his experience of having a vibrant mind trapped in a paralyzed body.
Initially shot from Jean-Do's subjective view, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY places the audience in his position. Fades, blurred images, and jarring edits give us his way of seeing amid the confusion and aggravation. The visual technique expresses the unsettling feeling of his fixed perspective and the constricting sensation of immobility. Director Julian Schnabel's experimental direction conveys what it must be like when one's body is no longer one's own and subject to physicians' prodding and manipulations. As Jean-Do allows his mind to travel, the film opens up and brings the liberating relief of movement, even if it is only mental.
Croze's compassionate performance is central to Jean-Do's transformation. We look at her as he sees Henriette. Her face reflects the potential she spots in the shell before her. Henriette's patience indicates her faith in the agonizingly slow and repetitive system and in him. By force of will her belief is manifested. Jean-Do becomes what Henriette knows he can be. Croze's delicate work gives access to the touching relationship between patient and caregiver.
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY transcends the uplifting movie-of-the-week story through Schnabel's artful direction and deep empathy. One of art's important qualities is permitting us to inhabit the lives of others for a couple hours, something this film undertakes with great rigor. In casting the dashing Amalric, a coiled spring of an actor, as Jean-Do, we receive a fuller understanding of what it must be like to have one's appearance disfigured and energy quelled. Neither Amalric nor Schnabel grasp for cheap sympathy, though. Actor and director approach the situation with the single-minded purpose of providing a virtual experience that reveals the power of the mind to animate. Jean-Do's achievement of blinking a book is remarkable, but THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY inspires by showing what is available to everyone. We're as limited as we allow our minds to be.