Story of the eye
‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly‘ is an adaptation of a book many would presume to be unadaptable: former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoirs reflecting upon his rare medical condition “locked-in syndrome”. The film begins begins daringly and terrifyingly from Bauby’s perspective, as he regains consciousness in hospital following a stroke and slowly realises that he is totally paralysed except for an ability to roll and blink his eyes. His only means of communication is thus to blink, once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’, and with the assistance of his publisher he learns to spell words via a painstakingly laborious alphabetical system. Together they were able to transcribe the 144 page memoir on which this film is based.
In the first part of ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly‘ the viewer is locked, dreadfully, into Bauby’s perspective as one of his eyes is sewn shut to counterbalance the effect of muscle paralysis in his face. As the camera deviates from the prison of Bauby’s perspective, it seems at first to be a wasted opportunity to powerfully express Bauby’s experience through cinematic style. A film told totally from his viewpoint would have been an incredibly challenging formalistic achievement. It would not have been overwhelmingly restrictive since the novel deals as much with Bauby’s inner life (the butterfly) – the freedom he finds to explore his memory and imagination – as with his physical life. Nevertheless, despite some stylistic carelessness, the film justifies its decision to roam beyond the confines of Bauby’s vision. Most importantly, we are made privvy to his means of communicating, and how oddly expressive this one facet of communication could be. This film irrefutably demonstrates the notion that eyes are the windows to the soul. Bauby’s single eye becomes a vessel for all his expressiveness, his mouth, his smile, his voice. It is extraordinary how much emotional range is evoked from so little. The film is a tribute to the endurance and transcendance of the human spirit over material obstacles. It also makes a total mockery of Alejandro Amenabar’s mawkish pro-euthanasia drama ‘The Sea Inside‘.
Where ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly‘ is a little careless is in its exploration of Bauby’s memory, which could have been more subjectivised and abstract. At one point the viewer is given the odd vantage point of Bauby’s convertible as he relives a trip to Lourdes with his mistress. The camera angle changes clumsily in a manner that suggests a cameraman standing up in the back seat before sitting back down again. In a film in which perspective is so important, this offers nothing but a tangible sense of someone being in the back seat of the car – which of course there isn’t. For me, these ill-conceived camera movements slightly undermine what could have been a formalistic masterpiece. Nevertheless it is a powerful, saddening but ultimately uplifting film that deserves to be seen.