Tuesday, 19 February 2008
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
I was somewhat dubious about spending my Saturday night watching a film about a man who emerged from a coma to find himself completely paralysed barring an ability to blink his left eye. Strange then that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly proved to be as uplifting a piece of cinema as it was sad and that Julian Schnabel’s movie actually justifies using the much misapplied superlative ‘life-affirming’.
The film is an adaptation of Jean Dominique Bauby’s book. It charts the author’s emergence from a coma after suffering a massive stroke which left him with “locked-in syndrome”. Impressionistic camerawork with cloudy and sporadic images recreate the impression of Bauby coming out of the coma. Indeed for the majority of the film the camera remains behind the protagonist’s good eye, evoking the claustrophobia of Bauby’s ‘diving bell’. A sense exacerbated by the audience sharing an inner monologue of the ill man’s thoughts and perceiving the rest of the dialogue through his hearing, initially woozy but gradually clearer.
Bauby was a worldly-wise and successful man before his stroke, an aspirant novelist and editor of Elle fashion magazine. After striking speech therapist Henriette devises a system of communication for Bauby, it is his creative energies that drag him from the point where he simply wishes to die and he embarks on the tortuous process of narrating his book. We also become privy to the extraordinary flights of imagination and memory which Bauby characterises as his butterfly, a figurative antithesis to the paralysing and claustrophobic diving bell of his syndrome.
Bauby is an engaging narrator, honest, humorous but flawed. His wife faithfully attends to him throughout his illness whilst he longs for the presence of a mistress who wishes only to remember his fit and healthy persona. Such flaws bring home the humanity of the character. Two of the most affecting scenes in the film focus on his relationship with his aging father. In the second of these the father cannot muster words to utter to his paralysed son over the telephone, until he his struck by the similarities between his own confinement, imprisoned in his flat by decrepitude and that of his son.
An extraordinary film, that examines the indignities and despair our bodies can reduce us to and hints at the ability of imagination and art to offer some transcendence.