' Cinema Romantico: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

Locked In Syndrome. This is a rare medical condition in which a person is awake, completely aware, in full control of his or her mind, but unable to move or speak. I look at its defintion on wikipedia and it advises the syndrome has been described as "the closest thing to being buried alive". That probably provides all necessary information regarding the condition - a condition the real-life Jean Dominique Bouby (Mathieu Amalric), the one-time editor of the French magazine Elle, found himself in after a terrible stroke over ten years ago. His speech therapist (the, I must be completely honest, uber-luminous Marie Josee Croze), however, assists him in communicating via the only means available - his left eye. She can list the letters of the alphabet and he will blink when she lands on the required letter. Also, one blink will mean yes, two blinks will mean no. And so using this technique he sets about dictating a book called The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, upon which this filmed was based.

I have not read Bauby's memoir but I would imagine filmable was not a word that leapt to the mind of any who have read it. Creating a movie wherein your main character can do nothing more than blink and so spends his time either in bed or a wheelchair demands a certain type of director, someone rather artistic.

Enter director Julian Schnabel, a man who, in fact, is an artist. He includes a bounty of POV shots, specifically from Bouby's left eye. The first half-hour or so of the movie is strictly from this POV angle, which may grow grating to some viewers. Schnabel is up to something here, though, and shows it when Bouby finally declares to his speech therapist courtesy of the blinks that he has decided to cease pitying himself. As this scene unfolds we realize Schnabel has pulled back to a far more traditional two shot of the characters, no longer in POV. Only once Bouby has done away with the pity is both he and the audience allowed to get outside of being locked in.

At this point Bouby partakes in fantasies within in his own head and Schnabel enacts these fantasies out for us onscreen. There also several flashbacks to Bouby's past, and particularly of note is a key sequence with Bouby's father (Max Von Sydow) whom my friend and fellow film snob Rory the Movie Idiot discussed at length.

We are introduced to the mother of Bouby's children (Emmanuelle Seigner) whom Bouby never chose to marry. Instead he was seeing another woman prior to his stroke, a woman who chooses not to visit Bouby in the hospital. Looking at Bouby's relationships to these women and to the various women he meets in the hospital we get the sense they are somewhat disposable and all the same to him.

And that brings us to the movie's issue - it is hampered by a lack of a true, fully realized narrative. Bouby changes to a degree but the film doesn't build quite as much as it should while progressing and the end - for me, at least - did not pack as much emotional power as one would expect. Certain individual scenes, on the other hand, cut deeply. Personally, the scene in which we first see Bouby beginning to dictate his memoir had my eyes watering up.

Quite clearly, locked-in syndrome is beyond my comprehension. (I kept thinking that if I ever end up locked-in the first damn thing I'd blink to my speech therapist is: I want music.) We can't truly imagine what that condition would be like but we're told that if we had it we can imagine. Even something as horrifying as locked-in syndrome can't beat back the imagination. And that's a powerful message.

2 comments:

Rory Larry said...

Actually since the nature of the book is a reflection of his imagination and his memories and how his body is a "diving bell" (claustrophobic, heavy, dismal) and his imagination is the "butterfly" (open aired, light, and carefree) it does lend itself to visuals but I think you are right only an artist could properly pull it off.

The book is a memoir but it doesn't spend a lot of time on self reflection of who he was and who he has become. The theme of women is left behind because the director preferred the theme of fathers and sons and on a second viewing you see that more and more in many of the scenes.

Anonymous said...

-Nick is able to communicate with us, Doctor.

-What did he say?

-I'm comiling it now. It says, "Bring me something to drink and my ipod or pull the plug."