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August 15th, 2013

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Film Review

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) is a French film with English subtitles.  This film is thoughtful and profound – not scenic, not much drama, not much soundtrack, and not much plot.  The virtue of Diving Bell is the situation that the film captures successfully:  a 43 year old man is paralyzed by a stroke.  The camera opens as if it were Jean’s eye looking out – you get Jean’s constricted feeling as medical staff lean down in front of him.  

This fictional story follows French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby’s historical story.   He is taught in rehabilitation how to communicate by blinking his left eye—all he can move—in response to spoken letters of the alphabet.  Jean decides to write a memoir of his paralyzed life.  He symbolizes his body as trapped in a diving bell or suit, while his imagination is still free as a butterfly.  

Countering that smothered sensation are Jean’s thoughts, narrated in voice-over.  Jean cracks jokes to himself, keeping the film hopeful.  As Jean remembers scenes from his past and when he daydreams, the camera shows these vital, sometimes extravagant vignettes.

Jean’s memoir adopts a theme of redemption—for himself, whose previous life was egocentric, disregarding others, especially his wife, Celine.  Jean learns to value the most basic human qualities: loving his children, being patient with obstacles to his dreams, and admitting his vanity.  

Some memorable scenes are Jean with: his old father, his children, his two speech therapists, his friend who asked him for his plane seat, a therapist taking him to church, and his wife.  After publishing his book, Jean dies, perhaps from pneumonia.  

It may not sound like it, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an affirmative, mythic film.  Everyone feels trapped at some time, and this film tells how to make the best of it.