The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Reviewed by John Stakes

What an unusual title: what an extraordinary and compelling film, receiving its first showing in Keswick to a very large and appreciative audience last Sunday, and having already garnered four Oscar nominations, two Golden Globes and one Bafta on its journey here.

The story is both traumatic and true. It is almost impossible to imagine the plight of anyone waking up from a three weeks’ coma after a massive stroke to find they are in a state of head to toe physical paralysis and unable to speak, and yet with their sight and hearing unimpaired and mentally fully alert. This rare locked-in syndrome condition was described by its victim Jean Bauby, the 43 years’ old editor of the French magazine Elle, and separated father of three, as akin to being in a diving bell at the bottom of the ocean. His first thoughts were to be allowed to die.

Award winning director Julian Schnabel realised Bauby’s self-imprisonment by showing it from Bauby’s perspective for large parts of the film through clever camera work to reveal the utterly frustrating claustrophobia of what remained of Bauby’s life. This was particularly illustrated in the scene where Bauby’s right eye is stitched up to prevent infection and we were able to watch from inside his eye as blackness replaced the light. There was a palpable sense of relief as the audience at least was periodically released from his nightmare each time the camera changed this perspective.

Bauby never recovered. However, through the ingenuity of his physiotherapist and especially his speech therapist, he was able to communicate by blinking his left eye, and, eventually and painstakingly completed what was to become a best selling memoir of his tragic experience, before suddenly contracting pneumonia from which he died ten days after its publication. Before then he had taken us on a butterfly-like tour of his life through the use of his one freedom – his imagination and memory, and he was able to reconstruct the events leading up to his stroke as he was driving his son through the leafy lanes near Calais.

Bauby was brilliantly played by French actor Mathieu Amalric ( soon to be seen as the next James Bond villain ), the part being initially scheduled for Johnny Depp by Universal Studios. The rest of the cast comprising doctors, family and business acquaintances were all excellent revealing varying degrees of sincerity ( or lack of it) as they presented themselves before the glare of Bauby's remaining searching eye.

Once again we were privileged to witness through cinema an extreme aspect of the human condition presented with a restrained compassion and honesty. This enabled the full enormity of Bauby’s predicament and its effect on those around him to emerge without a trace of false heroics and audience manipulation which would no doubt have bedevilled what was originally intended to be a Hollywood production.