The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Based on the book and directed by artist Julian Schnabel, it’s the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a catastrophic stroke in 1995 which left him totally paralyzed except for his left eye.

Over the next two years he dictated, blinking letter by letter, this memoir.

We caught this film on DVD the other night. It’s an almost overwhelmingly sad story, where even love of his family and friends is more than counteracted by his inability to express much in return.

The audio and video blew me away from the start. In the first scenes, he’s awakening from a three-week coma in the immediate aftermath of the stroke. The picture blurs at the edges, cuts in and out, the sound is garbled and distorted. The point-of-view is largely his — what he can see out of his one good eye when he can’t even turn his head. It was painful and claustrophobic to watch.

The lives of other characters provide commentary. A friend to whom he’d generously given up his seat on a flight, a flight that was then hijacked, and who spent four years as a hostage in a Beirut cellar. His aged father, who cannot even shave himself anymore.

The cast is led by Mathieu Amalric as Jean-Do. Mostly immobilized and restricted to faint voice-overs, he appears in later scenes as his pre-accident self. The cast of doctors and therapists surrounding him is so good you forget that they’re actors. I was particularly taken by the luminous Marie-Josée Croze, his patient and adoring speech therapist. Bauby was the editor of Elle Magazine, and some of the therapists are clearly star-struck by him.

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The soundtrack offers some gems, including this Tom Waits number. It plays behind a scene where he’s taken in his wheelchair down to the beach on Fathers’ Day, where he joyfully and agonizingly watches his children play.
When The World Is Green

It’s a movie that will take a long time getting out of my head. Catch it if you can.

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