This review details plot points from throughout the entire movie, including the end.
Watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a conflicting, almost paradoxical experience. At first, second, third, and fourth glance, the movie is a tragedy. It tells the real life story of Jean-Dominique (Jean-Do) Bauby, editor of Elle magazine, following a stroke that has left him almost entirely paralyzed except for the use of his eyes and one set of eyelids. Most of the first part of the film is shown through Jean-Do’s gaze, to the point that for a long time we have no idea what his face looks like. The sights we see are his own and we also hear his internal, incommunicable thoughts, narrated by actor Mathieu Amalric.
Every minute that passes is another punch to the heart for both Jean-Do and the viewer, as we experience his life from the moment he wakes up from a stroke-induced coma, which he barely remembers. We are right there as he regains consciousness, as he blinks in response to bright lights, and as he discovers, in horror, that he is unable to speak. The punishment continues as he learns of his total paralysis and of the malfunction of his other set of eyelids. We share his terror as we experience the darkness closing in as one eye is sewn shut while Jean-Do silently and helplessly screams out in confusion and fear.
Jean-Do’s tragedy continues as, despite having access to great medical support, he makes very little progress toward mobility. Instead, we continue to meet other characters, all of whom serve as reminders of the limitations of Jean-Do’s paralysis. Whether it’s his shut-in father who he will likely never see again or his lover, who refuses to visit him as she would prefer to “remember him as he was,” nearly every memory of the past is a painful reminder of what will never be again.
Despite all of that, somehow, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly can also be a powerfully uplifting film. The more time Jean-Do spends trapped inside of his body, the more he accepts his circumstances. Hearing his thoughts, we are privileged to follow his progress from panic, to distress, to self-pity, into acceptance, until eventually, with the help of his physical and speech therapists, he figures out a way to communicate, using the only physical ability he has: blinking. Faced with no other choice, Jean-Do’s resignation to his circumstances allows him to navigate his way through social interactions in a limited but enabling way.
As the efficiency of communication grows, the internal narration becomes more hopeful and affirming. In contrast to the horror of watching one’s own eye be sewn shut, the elation we feel whenever Jean-Do laughs lets us know that happiness is possible, even within such dire circumstances. It’s a triumphant feeling, made all the more special by the fact that it’s a secret shared with no one but the audience.
Jean-Do refuses to have his life defined entirely by its tragedy so instead he throws himself into the daunting task of fulfilling a book contract he had signed before his stroke. He dictates an entire book about his life by blinking while a transcriber reads the alphabet out loud. The completed book is a testament to Jean-Do’s acceptance of his paralysis and to his triumphant force of will. The movie ends at the release of the book, which is a commercial and critical success. Then, a bit of text on the screen delivers one final kick to the soul – within days of the books’ release, Jean-Do died. Roll credits.
Although it isn’t specifically revealed in the movie, the real Jean-Dominique Bauby died from pneumonia. We’ve seen Jean-Do suffer from pneumonia before and it looks like a horrible, drowning experience, as we see liquid bubble out of his breathing tube. With this knowledge, it’s impossible to cling exclusively to the feelings of hope and triumph that we felt moments before. Once it’s over, the experience of watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly becomes a balancing act of trying to navigate and balance tragedy with triumph and despair with hope. There are enough elements of both to decide for yourself just what kind of story it is but the real magnificence of the film is that it does both and it does them masterfully.
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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is also available from Amazon.