The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Friday, March 14, 2008

There are many ways that you can be trapped. You could be trapped in a job you hate. You could be trapped in an unloving relationship. Or you could be literally trapped – you could be held hostage or you could be imprisoned. But perhaps more terrifying than all of these is to be trapped in your own body. To have your mental faculties left intact but to be unable to move or communicate properly.

This is what happens to Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle Magazine. At the age of 43 he suffers a massive stroke and is unable to move and unable to talk. The only way that he can express himself is by blinking one of his eyes.

The opening scenes are magnificent in the way that they capture the terror of the situation. Everything is shot from Jean-Dom’s perspective. We see his blurred vision and we hear how distorted his hearing has become. But we also hear his thoughts. Inside this shell is a man – a man completely preserved. Therefore it’s not unusual that Jean-Dom screams inside his head when the doctors talk to him and they don’t hear the words he thinks he’s saying.

One of the scariest scenes occurs early on. Jean-Dom’s left eye is fine but his right eye is immobile. Therefore, seeing as he can’t blink it, it needs to be closed up so that it doesn’t get infected. From Jean-Dom’s perspective we see his eye get sewn up. All the time he’s screaming but the male nurse can only blather supposedly comforting words about his skiing holiday. Part of Jean-Dom’s word is being narrowed even further. He’s in danger of disappearing within himself.

The only salvation is that he can move his good eye. Because of this he and his therapists are able to communicate – the therapist goes through the alphabet and Jean-Dom blinks when the person gets to the word. It’s an excruciatingly slow way of communicating, kind of like extreme text messaging, but it allows Jean-Dom to finally express himself. And the first thing that he says, in response to his therapist asking him what he wants, is ‘death’. This upsets his therapist terribly, who has worked long and hard with her patient, but it’s an understandable emotion. Here’s a man who was in complete control of his destiny. He’d managed to do very well for himself. But then it was taken away.

But maybe Jean-Dom had done something to upset the gods? Maybe he deserved this? Well, he wasn’t a saint. He had a broken marriage and he had a stormy relationship with his girlfriend, but nothing he did warranted this. Therefore it was just bad luck, which is perhaps the least comforting thing in the world.

There’s a good scene where Jean-Dom is taken to see a priest. A weaker man would seek salvation in god; he’d relinquish control of his destiny and put it in the hands of someone else. But Jean-Dom’s paralysis only strengthens his non-belief. Here are all these people praying for him and it’s done nothing. The only people who can improve his condition are himself and those around him.

There’s another scene that touches on religion when Jean-Dom, before his stroke, goes to Lourdes with his girlfriend, who’s a staunch Catholic. Jean-Dom is immediately appalled at the line of invalids waiting to be blessed with holy water. And then he’s further appalled when his girlfriend wants a tacky statue of the Madonna, complete with flashing lights. She’s told it’s a one off, blessed by a Cardinal, but later Jean-Dom sees another in the window. How can he put his faith and his trust in this god when so many people’s prayers are left unanswered?

And it’s the devotion of those people around Jean-Dom that is the most moving. His therapists help him to make progress, a woman from a publisher’s takes his dictation for the book he writes about his condition, and his wife gives him love and support. However, his girlfriend won’t come and see him. In an excruciating scene the girlfriend briefly has to communicate with Jean-Dom through his wife. But then his wife leaves briefly so that the girlfriend can speak alone on the telephone. She says how she still loves him but that she can’t see him in that condition. One can’t help but wonder why Jean-Dom loves her above his wife when she gives him so much and his girlfriend gives him so little. His girlfriend’s non-appearance seems to me like a betrayal. But then again, it’s almost impossible to fathom people. Jean-Dom loves her and that’s that.

Another powerful scene is the one when Jean-Dom’s father calls. There are no trite expressions of affection. There’s just a very genuine feeling of sadness that a grown man is unable to help his son. And it’s kind of a relationship that has been flipped on its head. In an earlier scene we seen Jean-Dom shave his father – his dad is an invalid and can’t leave his house. So now his father has to be the strong one again and is left reeling.

But in a strange way, Jean-Dom and his father are now in the same boat. Both are trapped. And it’s kind of ironic that before his stroke, Jean-Dom wanted to write a modern interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Now Jean-Dom and Edmond Dantes are truly alike. Both are prisoners. But unfortunately Jean-Dom never gets a chance to free himself. Ten days after his book is published, and after he’s made progress, he dies of pneumonia. The end is moving because there are no false attempts to pull our heartstrings. We just feel the crushing unfairness and banality of a life being wasted for no reason whatsoever.

But another reason why the film works so well is because the film doesn’t try and soften the character for us. Jean-Dom looks at the breasts of his attractive female therapists, his fantasies involve such wonderful delights as eating large banquets and making love to beautiful women, and despite everything he still ends up loving someone who is unworthy of him. He’s forced to change the way that he communicates, but the man inside pretty much remains the same.

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