Saturday, February 09, 2008

The View from the Tank: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon) (2007)



This was, hands down, the best movie I've seen in the past year. I hadn't rushed out to see this movie when it came out. It is kind of a hard sell: a French movie about a magazine editor who becomes totally paralyzed and then composes his memoir by blinking to an assistant.

But it is not in any way a bummer. You realize that the movie is going to be not simply heartbreaking, but hilarious as well, within the first few minutes, as you hear the voice of the narrator, Jean-Dominique Bauby, trying to communicate to his doctors, and coming to the horrific realization that he can't speak and can't move anything but his eyes. This doesn't hold him down for long: the next day he is ogling his young, pretty speech and physical therapists, straining his eyeball to look down their cleavage.

There are other moments where Bauby's state and frustration caused me to laugh out loud: when he's trying to watch a soccer game and someone turns off the TV, when a fly lands on his nose when no one is there to brush it off, and he struggles to move to get it off. The mood of the movie is kept from sinking into morbidity and darkness through a suffusion of light in many scenes, and a delicate, pastel palette, featuring lightly blue-tinted glaciers falling into the sea, butterflies emerging from chrysalis,and sun-drenched memories in the French countryside.

The diving bell is the perhaps too literal metaphor for the locked-in syndrome Bauby is a victim of, unable to move or feel anything (besides his eye), but with his mind fully aware and active. His imagination and his memory, he notes, are the butterfly that allow him to escape his diving bell. A little clunky, I admit, but you try blinking that out.

This is something of a digression, but much of the movie made me want to go to France, to speak French -- to be French. There seems to be an element of French pride and camaraderie running throughout the movie: Bauby revels in French authors like Dumas; his friends come to read to him from Balzac; Bauby's speech therapist tells him on her first day that his case is the most important one she has ever had and she vows to do her best and promises to help him communicate. It's touching, but there is also a sense that his speech therapist feels that this is her duty, as a Frenchwoman, to help this fallen Frenchman. Of course, that could be totally off: that's like saying My Left Foot had to do with being Irish, or that Forrest Gump had to do with being American; on second thought, maybe they did. Or maybe, for me, I was simply overcome with the feeling that everyone is way more attractive in France.

The life-affirming aspects of the movie did nag at me a bit: when he is first spelling out words by blinking, Bauby says he wants to die. His speech therapist rejects this, and says he should be ashamed of himself. The story is about the joys and beauties of life -- even a "prolonged life" -- but I was a little disturbed with how blithely Bauby's request is dismissed in the film. Someone left in such a terribly compromised state, with little hope of recovery, should have some say in what becomes of them. They have no duty to soldier on in their near vegetative state to make other people feel good and wholesome about continuing to care for them. I guess the film sort of addresses this by suggesting that there is some possibility for recovery, but it seemed like an issue not properly dealt with.

In any event, the film was strange, funny, and ultimately wonderful -- better than anything I've seen in much too long.

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