The Diving Bell and the Butterfly cover

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

7.4 out of 10 
The climax is almost nonexistent. That is a tragedy in of itself.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a French film based on a true story of an Elle magazine editor that suffers a massive stroke at the age of 43. One of the most terrifying situations I can imagine is one where no one can hear your voice as you remain helplessly frozen, unable to move. This nightmare was a reality for Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wakes up on a hospital bed where he was in coma for three weeks after suffering a major stroke. The doctors are thrilled he finally awakes but quickly realize that he is unable to speak. He thinks he is talking aloud but it is only his thoughts he is hearing, not actual audible words.

The doctor’s figure out that he is well aware of his surroundings and that he can hear everything. He is paralyzed from head to toe (they call this locked-in syndrome) except he can move his eye. So they come up with a way that he can communicate by the use of blinking his eye. This is obviously extremely useful but the “blink once for yes, twice for no” method is also very limited to simple yes or no responses.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly movie review

But that is hardly communicating, it is more like just responding. So they try reciting letters of the alphabet one by one and wait for him to respond with a blink so he can begin to form sentences. The film does a great job showing just how frustratingly slow and difficult this is to do. A simple sentence could take ten minutes to decipher.

One of the first sentences we see him complete with his speech therapist is, “I want death”. His speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) finds it disrespectful and scolds him saying that even though she has not been with him long that she wants nothing more than to help him out. Bauby is not in a position to feel sorry for himself with how much learning he has to do if he wants to remain semi-functional.

Before the stroke he had a contract with a publisher to write a book which he is still determined to fulfill. His original idea was to re-write “The Count of Monte Crisco” but opts to write an autobiography instead. Dictating a book using series of blinks is a very daunting task but not impossible as he proves.

His father, who is 92, is in a similar situation as him. He is trapped inside his apartment much like Jean is trapped inside his own body. They are both not able to function without the help of others but it is a tragedy that Jean’s occurred so early in life.

He fears that his life is slowly crumbling down around him, which is represented by shots of icebergs breaking apart. Although he is paralyzed with movement his imagination runs wild. He visions butterflies floating around which is a metaphor for his life before the stroke. Now he is trapped inside his body like a driver in a dive bell sinking to the bottom of the ocean helplessly.

For the first half of the film, most of it is shot with Bauby’s point of view, often things are not quite all the way in focus. The narration consists of the thoughts from his head. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski does an excellent job of making us feel like we are inside Bauby so that we can feel his frustrations and limitations. Kaminski won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography for his work (the film also went on to win Best Director at the 2008 awards).

Playing the lead of Jean-Dominique Bauby, Mathieu Amalric had his work cut out for him. He had to play two vastly different characters, one that is young and wild and one that is completely without movement. Stripped of his once confident and wealthy playboy personality he is forced to swallow his pride.

The story of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly itself is pretty amazing and heroic. But everything is pretty much laid out on the table within the first ten minutes of the film. That being said, since it is based on real-life events, there is not much more you can add to make a more complete story than what actually happened. The resolution is that the hero is able to complete the near impossible task of writing a book with his eyes but I felt the climax to be almost nonexistent. That is a tragedy in of itself.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Movie review

7.4/10
Scoring Guide

Author: Dustin Jansick

Dustin Jansick is an independent film critic who also enjoys; indie music, cooking, technology, sports, puzzles, graphic design, and P.T. Anderson films. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Way Too Indie, which means he reviews hundreds of movies each year. Also a proud member of the OFCS.

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