On Le scaphandre et le papillon

Or, in English, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. This is a fantastic movie based on the book of the same name by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of the French magazine Elle suffered a paralyzing stroke and woke up from a coma after nearly three weeks, only to find himself in “Locked-in Syndrome”. Locked-in Syndrome is pretty much what it sounds like: a person is fully conscious while being completely paralyzed. Bauby himself uses a beautiful metaphor of the diving bell to describe the condition (in the movie it’s one of the suits with the large, spherical helmet, which allows Schnabel, the director, to signal the paradoxical aspect of the syndrome in cruciform). The paralysis froze his entire body except for his left eye (or the paralysis is depicted as such in the movie), and the film begins with the first-person point-of-view of Bauby, giving the viewer some idea of what it must have been like for him to lie in a hospital bed with his vision forced in a single direction out of one eye. I doubt the first-person p.o.v. has ever been used so well in a movie.

Important associations for Walker Percy fans will be what Bauby describes as “a memoir of Life in Death” (the paradoxical aspect, again), and of course the syndrome goes far beyond the way Lancelot describes his prison cell, so that many of the existential concerns are amplified. And there is a priest in the movie, as well as a trip to Lourdes that is used to great effect (Percy fans might remember Dr. Tom Moore’s non-visit to the sight with his daughter). No references to purgatory, overwrought or otherwise, although fans of Piers Paul Reid’s Alive might appreciate the fact that Bauby died just a week or so after the book was published.

What’s really remarkable about the movie is how funny it all is, or rather how great Bauby’s sense of humor is even as he struggles to overcome an overwhelming sense of self-pity. Apparently much of the interior monologue was improvised by Mathieu Amalric, who played Bauby in the film. The rest of the film struck me as what would seem to be an accurate portrayal of the syndrome, and Bauby’s triumph over it. As described in Wikipedia::

The entire book was written by Bauby blinking his left eyelid, which took ten months (four hours a day). A transcriber repeatedly recited a French language frequency-ordered alphabet (E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L, etc.), until Bauby blinked to choose the next letter. The book took about 200,000 blinks to write and an average word took approximately two minutes. The book also chronicles everyday events for a person with locked-in syndrome. These events include playing at the beach with his family, getting a bath, and meeting visitors.

Apprently other aspects of the film were not so accurate, namely Bauby’s relationships with his wife and his girlfriend. However this might me, it’s a wonderful film that describes a truly heroic figure, even if this heroic figure isn’t so truly described. And it can only draw attention to the book, which I’d like to take on as my next reading project in French. In any case, watch this movie.


  1. Anonymous says

    Thanks, interesting read. I never saw the film, thoug I remember it coming out.

  2. Jonathan Webb says

    Sounds incredible, I'll add it to the queue.

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