The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Erm, can you turn me to face the other direction now?

Erm, can you turn me to face the other direction now?


"Two things are not paralysed. My imagination and my memory"

And with this realisation, Jean-Dominique Bauby decides to write his true-life memoir of becoming completely paralysed after a stroke. The former editor of French Elle magazine was able only to move his left eye; this was ultimately how he learned to communicate with the world and get his book transcribed- but his mind and spirit grew larger and more unfettered than ever. A lover of the finer things of life, with a society wife, a country home and famous models on speed dial, it was all the more shocking that such a young and affluent man was turned into, as one friend tactfully put it, 'a vegetable'. But somehow, Bauby turned a sad tale into a triumph- he referred to his body as 'le scaphandre' (the diving bell) but to his mind as 'le papillon' (the butterfly) and chronicled the constant journey that required him to move between one and the other.

The Story

In 1995, whilst on an outing with his son, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a major stroke that left him in a coma for three weeks. When he regained consciousness, he only had the use of his left eye, although the full use of his mind- called 'locked-in syndrome'. At first, the film is an almost forensic look at his recovery; the opening credits are anatomical drawings and photographs and as the film begins we literally see events unfold from Bauby's point of view- a parade of doctors, specialists, nurses and therapists who all talk at him and examine him but are unable to communicate with him. There's also an unpleasant scene where we watch his non-functioning right eye get sewn up from the inside. But as time goes on, we meet more of the characters who matter to him- from his estranged ex partner and their children to his colleagues from the world of fashion- as they arrive to visit him and as they come alive in memories. In this sense, we meet the soul of Jean-Dominique Bauby, not just the medical challenge that his body presents. Eventually, he decides to write his memoirs using the aid of a ghostwriter who devises a special way of using the alphabet that requires the blinking of his eye to denote the correct letter. His physical therapists had hoped that he would recover some of his faculties, but tragically, only a few days after the publication of his memoir, he contracted pneumonia and died.

The Body in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The cruellest of ironies in the story is that Jean-Dominique's mind and spirit are as lively as his body is incapacitated. Through his vivid imagination, he conjures up memories of visits to Lourdes, photoshoots with top models, sensual encounters with his girlfriend- all while being talked at and often patronised by many of the professionals dealing with him. His lascivious moods have gone nowhere, his resolve tested to the limit by the two beautiful physical therapists who work with him to recover his speech and movement- not that they are any the wiser. He even develops feelings for his ghostwriter, who rebuffs any attempts to connect on a deeper level. We are so often reminded in the media how society can render people with physical disabilities invisible; nowhere is this more evident in the way the world now treats a man who- had they met him a few months earlier- they would have wanted to dine with and quite possibly sleep with, too. In literally the blink of an eye, he goes from society darling to an object of pity, an immobile, drooling, one-eyed man who is completely dependant on 24 hour care but who is so acutely aware of his condition that you wonder how he manages to stay sane.

But the clue to the above resides firmly in his mind. In much the same way as a person who loses their sight will often report an increase in their hearing ability, it's as if, deprived of all physical sense, his imagination and memory become so acutely powerful that he is able to inhabit them as completely as other people inhabit their own mundane worlds. He conjures up fantastic memories at will, recounting entire conversations verbatim, imagining sensuous, technicolour scenarios with the objects of his desires, of which there are still plenty, even within the confines of hospital. Using the butterfly of his own imagination, he resists the diving bell of his imprisoned body. 

Watch the trailer here: