Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly

A touching and engaging story based on the true-life account of a French fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do) who suffered a massive stroke leaving his body paralysed - except for his left eye. He loved fast cars, the high life and the adulation that being a top fashion editor brought. To see a man so much at the top of his game vocationally, relationally and in terms of popular acclaim brutally cut down by the cruel arbitrariness of a stroke is a sobering encounter. He is estranged from Celine "the mother of his children", he obviously has other lovers. His children were devoted to him and in turn he was devoted to his father (Max Von Sydow popping up again - how many films has this man made?).

The senior consultant looking after Jean-Do has the bedside manner of an insensitive porcupine on a bad day. "I am in charge of your case and it is my job to tell you the bad news..." The team of nurses and therapists who care for Jean-Do show wonderful tenderness, love and commitment above and beyond the call of duty - especially his physiotherapist Marie and his speech therapist Henriette. Even though Jean-Do suffers the frustration of having 'Locked-in Syndrome' he manages to communicate by blinking when the correct letter is recited, enabling him to spell words. 

There is even room for humour on several occasions best exemplified when Josephine models how he should try to move his tongue and how he should try to blow her a kiss. In close-up this all looks too much like an invitation of another kind and poor Jean-Do can barely contain himself. 

Jean-Do refuses to give in and looks on his unresponsive body as a Diving Bell that imprisons him. The things that are not paralysed are his memories and his imagination - a Butterfly - which he manages to combine to great effect taking him on soaring journeys across  mountains and deserts. A recurring theme is the faith of those around him - particularly his daughter Celine and Marie. They along with many others, faithfully pray for Jean-Do's healing - a miracle. He remains unconvinced by the possibility of a miracle. 

When Josephine takes him to mass at the local church, she and the priest offer to take him to Lourdes which triggers memories of a past visit with a former lover for whom he bought a flashing statuette of the Blessed Virgin. Back in the hotel with Mary plugged in and brightly flashing, Jean-Do is unprepared to continue with the intimacies he was anticipating and the girl refuses to turn the flashing virgin off. Another great moment of ironic humour.

Before the stroke, Jean-Do had negotiated a publishing deal for a book - a version of the Count of Monte Cristo. He resolved to write a book dictating the text by the fluttering of his eye lid to a patient and attentive girl Claude, sent by the publisher. In his thoughts he tells us that a "text is not alive until it's read". Perhaps that helps to answer the question 'if a tree falls down in the middle of a wood and no-one is there to hear it does it still make a noise?'.

it is Celine who devotes her time and life to being with Jean-Do. She handles the incoming phone calls which Jean-Do listens to on speaker-phone and responds to by blinking through the special alphabet devised by Henriette which lists the letters in the order of the frequency of usage: ESARINTULOMDPCFBVHGJQZYXKW.

Jean-Do's book is published but he sadly dies 6 days later from pneumonia and complications.

This is a compelling story, well told and well acted. The ability to depict the Pas de Calais coastline as both warm an inviting and also cold and repelling to suit the mood of the story is masterfully done. To present the Marine Hospital of Berck-sur-Mer as an institution or warmth and humanity conveys a connection with Jean-Do's humanity that leaves viewers feeling they have been touched by the life that refuses to give in - a life that still has a contribution to make.

I recommend this film - get a copy if you can. I'll give it 7.5/10.

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