The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

In theaters.

Watching the movie, I felt unsettled, crushed, dismayed, stung, battered—and completely bewildered that it was not a horror flick but an ostensibly life-affirming film that was so brutally wringing me dry. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is absolutely beautiful to see, an astonishing cinematographic vision of light and color and breathtaking imagery, but that artistry is in service to an emotional bludgeon of a movie.

Directed by Julian Schnabel, Diving Bell tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was the editor of Elle in France before suffering a stroke at the age of 43. The stroke left him with “locked-in syndrome”—mind unharmed, body almost completely paralyzed. Bauby could, however, blink one eyelid, and his therapists used that to devise a painstaking method of communication. An interpreter would recite a special alphabet (letters arranged from most frequent to least frequent use), and Bauby would blink when she reached a desired letter. In that way, he could spell out his wishes and, eventually, a slim memoir, on which this film is based.

(For the record, my issues are with the movie, not Bauby himself, so for the rest of this post, I will refer not to Bauby, the real person, but to Jean-Do, the film character.)

In the first third of Diving Bell, we see through Jean-Do’s eyes, beginning when he wakes up from the coma that followed his stroke. The world goes in and out of focus as doctors lean in and out of picture, talking off screen, unable to hear Jean-Do’s increasingly panicked interior monologue, and even that tiny glimpse of locked-in syndrome is nightmarish. If Alzheimer’s disease destroys a person’s mind before his body, leaving an empty shell to interact with the world, locked-in syndrome is the opposite, destroying the body and trapping a living mind inside a corpse. Both conditions are terrifying reminders of the dual nature of humanity: a human is at once an earthy, physical being and a spiritual being of memories and ideas, and to destroy either half is to leave the other with only a pale imitation of life.

Jean-Do’s first sentence with his designer alphabet is “I want to die,” a statement that sends his therapist into a fury. He is cruel and selfish, she tells him. How dare he? Later she apologizes for being “out of line,” but that square condemnation was my first sense that I would have problems with this movie. Clearly one could make an argument, a good argument, for why Jean-Do’s suicidal declaration was premature, at the very least, but how dare he is more than “out of line.” It is that sentiment that is cruel and selfish. It is that sentiment that transforms Jean-Do from a man with free will and autonomy into a vessel for her need—for our need—to experience the so-called “triumph of the human spirit.”

But Diving Bell doesn’t seem to see it that way. At that point in the movie, we still are experiencing everything through Jean-Do’s eyes, so her condemnation is delivered directly to us, permitting no argument, boxing us into a particular worldview.

Jean-Do’s other therapist can be a bully, too. Describing herself as “very devout,” she labels every blink, every grunt, a godsent miracle and later takes Jean-Do to church with her. Though not religious, he accedes willingly enough, happy for a change of scene, but once there his wishes become irrelevant. Does Jean-Do wish to take communion? the priest asks. No, Jean-Do blinks. Yes, the therapist serenely, deliberately mistranslates. Does Jean-Do wish for a blessing? No, Jean-Do blinks. Yes, the therapist replies. Does Jean-Do wish to take a pilgrimage to Lourdes? No, Jean-Do blinks. Yes, the therapist answers. So Jean-Do goes along with everything—what choice does he have? The scene makes me queasy. His therapist’s actions are such a violation, denying Jean-Do autonomy, reducing him to some kind of religious talisman for her personal use, and yet the movie sails blithely along, floating away into an older memory of Lourdes. To be fair, it is an ambiguous memory, another moment in which Jean-Do is hijacked, in effect, by a “very devout” young woman, but it still is a beautiful memory, ending with the sad but enchanting sight of an electric madonna blinking in a shop window.

I suspect that the movie excuses the pretty therapist’s presumptuous actions largely because this is a movie that loves pretty women. When we’re watching the world through Jean-Do’s eyes, the lingering, silky way in which the camera passes over the female characters makes sense—before his stroke, Jean-Do is something of a womanizer—but even after the camera begins moving more freely, it retains a kind of genteel lasciviousness, focusing incessantly on lips, thighs, breasts, hair. For the first time since I studied film theory in college, I found myself thinking about Laura Mulvey’s essays on the “male gaze,” the way Hollywood cinema so often reduces women to “to-be-looked-at-ness.”

I wasn’t offended. But just as the bullying way Diving Bell approaches philosophical issues made me feel foreign and unwanted, so too did the reductive way it approaches women. I felt as though I’d stumbled uninvited into the wrong theater. It wasn’t just that as a heterosexual woman, I didn’t share Jean-Do’s lustful gaze. Ultimately, it was that all the women in Diving Bell are impossibly gorgeous, infinitely patient, endlessly forgiving, unquestioningly devoted madonnas, and I couldn’t relate to that vision of womanhood. I certainly don’t fit into it.

Every frame of Diving Bell is gloriously beautiful—it is a true masterpiece of cinematography—and I admire the acting, as well. Mathieu Amalric gives a nuanced, honest performance as Jean-Do, and Max Von Sydow plays Jean-Do’s father with crusty fragility; his agony over the premature demise of his beloved son is heartbreakingly real.

But underneath the aesthetic dazzle are a mawkish heavy hand and a surprising lack of reflection. For example, in my favorite scene, Roussin, a casual acquaintance of Jean-Do’s, visits him in the hospital. He is one of Jean-Do’s first visitors, and to my shock, he opens by telling his “locked-in” friend that he, Roussin, believes he can relate to how Jean-Do feels. I winced, anticipating a blistering interior rejection from Jean-Do, but Roussin continues. It turns out that Roussin (as Jean-Do well knows) was held hostage in Lebanon for years, isolated and abused, after his plane was hijacked by terrorists. Roussin recalls how he held on to his humanity in part but recalling trivia about great wine. On the outside, he had been an enthusiastic oenophile, and the memory of that helped him remember who he was.

It’s a lovely story (actor Niels Arestrup delivers the monologue in a devastating hush), and it gave me food for thought. And what I think is this: Diving Bell completely fails to acknowledge that Roussin held on to his humanity and his sanity in large part because he had hope, however slight, that one day he would be free, resurrected, restored to life. Jean-Do doesn’t have that hope. He must remain in his grave, his diving bell, for the rest of his days.

Diving Bell wants us to celebrate how he does that, and it is, of course, extraordinary how he keeps his spirits up and even composes an entire memoir one letter at a time. Of course I admire and celebrate that. But I resent the binary the film constructs, the way it argues that to do otherwise, to choose death, would have been cruel and selfish—a defeat.

Why must we view “life” as an absolute good and “death” as something we must rage against forever? Why, for that matter, must we view mere consciousness as “life”? Mind and body together make us human. To live is to imagine and remember, yes, but also to move freely, to communicate freely, to touch and be touched, to experience the glories of the world with every sense we can muster.

Despite all the beauties of Schnabel’s film, I never really believed that Jean-Do’s butterflies—his imagination, his memories, his facility with language—were enough to escape the prison of his diving bell body. Just as I believe love isn’t enough to heal all wounds, I believe consciousness isn’t enough to constitute life. That is a personal belief, of course. I would not impose it on anyone. But if I were “locked in,” my mind held hostage in the cadaver of my ruined body, I would want those I love to kiss me and say good-bye and set me free.

I refuse to think of that as defeat. Given those circumstances, choosing to die would be the final realization of my love of life. It would reflect my devoutly held beliefs. It would represent the triumph of my human spirit.

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