Thursday, June 16, 2011

Modern Film Classics: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly

So much can happen in the blink of an eye. But what can you actually do with it?

If you’re Jean-Dominique “Jean-Do” Bauby, you dictate the contents of your life story. 
In December 1995, Jean-Do was the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine. He was not a nice man. Fabulously well-connected, he had a wife he treated poorly and regularly humiliated by his affairs with models, children he ignored, and a mistress he actually loathed and suffered. Jean-Do was successful but wretched. One fine day, he was felled by a debilitating stroke and lost complete control over his entire body, becoming a human vegetable with the extremely rare condition of “locked-in syndrome”. He could not speak, feed or relieve himself, or move, but he could take in his entire surroundings and he could do just one thing … blink his left eyelid. The best analogy was that of a diver, locked in an old-fashioned diving-bell suit, unable to communicate to home base, breathing, but doing nothing else while caged in that physical constraint.

A speech therapist designed a method of communicating with Jean-Do. She developed a chart displaying all of the letters in their order of frequency of use, and not alphabetically. Using this chart, Jean-Do could “spell out words”. All he had to do was to blink at the letter he wanted when it was presented, the therapist or attending nurse would stop, and they start at the beginning of the chart again until he got to the next letter. With this unorthodox methodology, Jean-Do “spelled” out commands and his wishes and “dictated” stories and memories into what became his autobiography, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly. The slim memoir was an instant best-seller and adapted into Julian Schnabel’s award-winning French-language film in 2007.

Schnabel’s project, like its source material, had a difficult birth. Schnabel spoke little to no French when he first embarked on production but insisted on filming the entire film in its original language (which he had to learn). To further maintain verisimilitude, Schnabel shot it in the very same hospital where Jean-Do was treated before the latter’s death in 1997. The film was shot almost entirely from Jean-Do’s point of view and the camerawork was difficult and often laborious. Much of the screenplay had to be written outside of its original source material to incorporate additional biographical details that didn’t appear in the original memoir. 

Nevertheless, although the film was not a major box office success, it received very high reviews and such accolades as BAFTA, Golden Globe and Cesar Awards, Best Director honours at the Cannes Film Festival, and four Academy Award nominations. It is consistently ranked amongst the top 250 highest-rated films on the Internet Movie Database.

The speech therapist's chart
It is a film that tells it story from its self-pitying protagonist’s point of view. Visually, the camera is planted to show surroundings exactly as Jean-Do sees them. When he first wakes from a long coma and attempts to answer his attending physician’s questions, and the doctor states that the patient could not speak, Jean-Do screams in his head but slowly comes to the horrifying realization that he has lost the ability to communicate. Even more terrifying is the sequence where the doctor, in order to save his non-functioning right eye from drying out permanently, sews it shut using a surgical needle and thread, seen from the operating patient’s point of view, and there’s nothing in the world he could do to stop it. The situation is helpless, insulting, humiliating and frightening. 

There are also moments where those closest to Jean-Do realize that his time is finite and his body will give out. His wife sits by his side and reads to him while their children play, hiding their sadness and helplessness at watching Jean-Do waste away. There’s a distressing phone call from his father, aged 92, who accepts that he will outlive his child and he himself is too ill to make the long journey to see him. Although the father is talking, hs knows his son can never answer. He can never hear his voice again. And finally there’s the humiliating phone call from the mistress to the hospital room, which Jean-Do’s wife takes, and leaves them alone out of respect. The mistress says goodbye, stating she cannot bring herself to see him in such a state, preferring to remember him “as he was”. It is at that moment that Jean-Do realizes he is a living, breathing corpse. He may as well have been buried alive and it wouldn’t have made any difference.

"Dictating" his memoirs
Despite the difficult subject matter, what makes The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly so unique is not just its difficult and unconventional birth as a memoir, but also Schnabel’s decision to maintain as much verisimilitude as possible. It would have been easy to make this into an “inspirational” film where the hero transcends or walks again through sheer will power or divine intervention. The filmmaker wouldn’t dare insult Bauby or cheapen the real-life events by giving this false emotional uplift to mask the truth. There is no “lesson”. There is no miracle cure.

Bauby does not spend his time narrating or bemoaning his death. In his mind, he is urging for a woman’s sensual touch, the orgasmic gastronomic pleasure of a meal in his favourite restaurant, and simply absorbing the ability of moving about. When he is wheeled about the hospital and catches the reflection of his deformed face, he exclaims to himself, "God, who's that?" What does he say next? "I look like I came out of a vat of formaldehyde." In other words, his personality survived, and he’s still the dryly witty rascal he was before his stroke. He may be robbed of all other dignities in life, but his mind is his final refuge and no one can penetrate that fortress. There are fantasy sequences involving the seduction of historical figures and Nureyev dancing about the hospital corridors.

Presenting the published "dictated"
memoir to Jean-Do
This is a film that could be read as a treatise on consciousness and being, and stating that in this life, that may be all there is: our sensation, our absorption, our experience is all we have, whether our bodies fail us or not. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly perfectly captures Dylan Thomas’s command that we “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. It is a bold, brave and oftentimes really funny work of art. We all ache about our bodies and how tired we all are. How often do we dance, swim, run, strut, saunter, and celebrate everything that our able bodies can actually do? It is only when the vessel has run aground and our bodies fail us that we desperately try to jump-start the engine, to no avail. Bauby is, in his mind, wonderfully, startlingly free, like a butterfly, and he’s more alive than so many who are the walking dead and wounded.

''My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do.'' – Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly