What would you do if you were crying out to be heard but no one could hear you? And to compound this, suppose you were unable to move. This is the situation that Jean-Dominique Bauby found himself in. His true-life story is told in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a slow but moving French movie.
Diving Bell opens with Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) in a hospital bed. The camera stays tight, unmoving. It gives us the view from the patient's perspective. It goes in and out of focus with Bauby. When he blinks, the camera closes. He does not know where he is, or why the people are coming in and out of his field of vision. When he "talks" they cannot hear, since the words are in his head. Slowly he comes to realize he is in a hospital. And worse, he has "locked-in syndrome." All he can move is his left eye. Nothing else.
The first act of the movie is almost surreal, a claustrophobic combination of frustration and confusion. It succeeds in getting the viewer into the position of the patient. If we feel this frustrated, how much more must it be for Jean-Do Bauby.
As the movie unfolds, we see through flashback who Bauby was. Editor of famed fashion magazine, "Elle," he was the prototypical Frenchman -- lover of wine and women. Father of three, he had left his woman, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner) -- "not my wife, she is the mother of my three children" -- for another. He had been through several affairs. He was seeking the fullness of life; he was seeking relational fulfillment. He found it with his father, who was trapped in an apartment by old-age infirmities, but not with women.
In contrast to this carefree lover of life, Bauby has become trapped in a world all his own, with little to no hope of rescue or emergence. At first he cannot communicate with his caregivers. But rehab nurse Henriette Durand (Marie-Josee Croze) devises a way for him to "talk" -- she reads the letters of the alphabet to him and he blinks at the letter he wants. In this painstaking way, letter by letter, he constructs the words and sentences he wants to communicate. But it is better than no communication.
At first he feels so sorry for himself that he wants to die. "I want death," he says to Henrietta, communicating the enormity of the frustration and lack of control he has. But as he ponders life, he changes his perspective: "I decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed, my imagination and my memory." And these two are his constant companions.
The movie portrays his memories in flashback sequences, and these let us into what he has lost. The imagination is communicated in a collage of pictures and creative videos. In his imagination he can go anywhere he wants at any time. And he uses this to keep his outlook positive. As the diving bell is a metaphor for the locked-in situation he has no physical escape from, so the butterfly is a metaphor for the freedom he finds in his imagination, his mental escape which keeps him alive.
Before his stroke, he had signed a contract to write a modern-day version of "The Count of Monte Cristo", from a feminine point of view. Now he wants to fulfill his contract, but as a memoir of his life instead. With the help of Claude (Anne Consigny) who becomes his constant "dictation companion," he begins to write this book, one letter at a time.
Along with the way, his frustration is seen in the little things of life. Watching a soccer game, a nurse comes in and turns the TV off. We can feel the pain he experiences as he wants to see the end of the game and yet cannot do a thing about it. In another scene, two telephone installers come to his room and treat him like an idiot, a mute animal who has no feelings. As they leave the room, they rudely mock him, leaving him pierced by their cruelty.
In several ways, Diving Bell is like The Sea Inside on steroids. Both are slow foreign films. Both are based on true stories. Both deal with men in their prime crushed by an accident. While The Sea Inside's Ramon Sampedros is paralyzed, he can still move his head and speak. He can communicate, Jean-Do Bauby can do neither. While Ramon pursued death with dignity, Jean-Do moved to an acceptance of life. Both are based on stellar acting in conditions requiring total commitment.
In life Bauby looked everywhere for meaning and purpose, not really appreciating what he had. Going from woman to woman looking for love, he gets approval from his father (and don't we all seek parental approval) but cannot settle down with a wife. Yet, only when locked inside himself does he really get to appreciate what he had. Bauby learns to appreciate life, even if it is only lived out in his imagination.
How often do we fail to appreciate what we have? How often do we look at what we are missing, at what others have, and build greedy resentment in our hearts? Diving Bell reminds us that we should be thankful for what we have. Whether it is our children, our spouse, our friends, we must not take them from granted. Let's not wait for a tragic accident to make us realize what we have. As I celebrate the birthday of my beautiful Becca today, I can see my children and my family as gifts from a wonderful God. We can and should count our blessings.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs