20 May 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I wasn't particularly stoked to go see this movie. I guess I figured it was going to be one of those inspiring, triumph of the human will type of stories, and it just didn't appeal to me. But to my great delight, it turned out that I was wrong - that's not really what it's about at all. Or at least, that's not the point. Actually, one could describe the film as an exploration of interiority - a depiction of what it's like to be inside someone's head. 

The movie is based on the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who, when we meet him, has just woken up from a coma after a stroke that has left him completely paralyzed and unable to do anything but blink his left eye. In the course of the film, he learns to communicate by blinking, ultimately dictating the entire work upon which the film is based. This is an incredibly impressive feat, and the movie certainly makes it clear just how impressive it is, without being over-bearing about it. 

Certainly, it helps that Bauby is gifted with language. One of his first sentences is about the quality of light coming through the frayed curtain of his hospital room - it's gorgeous. The film does due honor to the beauty of the prose by its own beauty - Schnabel, the director, is a painter, and oh boy can you tell. It's a stunningly beautiful film. The greatest pleasure in it, I think, is just the rendering of the text, being able to see the metaphors. In this, its reminiscent somewhat of Gondry's work, especially Science of Sleep. Both films explore landscapes of dreams and memory, and do a lovely job of it. At one point, Bauby says that he has his memory and his imagination, and with those two, he can do anything, a claim that the film beautifully brings to life.

But it's also about the man's experience, what it's like to be trapped in one's own body, the new life he faces. It's surprisingly unsentimental and direct in this regard, and this is probably why it's so powerful. There are plenty of moments of humor, albeit of a rather dark variety. Bauby doesn't throw a pity party for himself - actually, the very first thing he says is that he wants to die, and the furious response of his speech therapist is intense: "it's obscene" she says, and my god, she's right. Given my own occasionally nihilistic tendencies, this made a huge impression on me, and was a really well-done aspect of the film - nor does he conceal the fact that he hasn't always been the greatest of guys, and his accident hasn't changed that. It is, however, about a man confronting his past and trying to be a better person, and poignantly so. It's a conversion occasioned by his changed physical state, but simultaneously autonomous from it, and it really makes up the meat of the film, I think.

Really an impressive movie - highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

I loved "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", but the movie I'd rather see is "My Stroke of Insight", which is the amazing bestselling book by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. It is an incredible story and there's a happy ending. She was a 37 year old Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke in the left half of her brain. The story is about how she fully recovered, what she learned and experienced, and it teaches a lot about how to live a better life. Her TEDTalk at TED dot com is fantastic too. It's been spread online millions of times and you'll see why!

culture_vulture said...

Dear Anonymous Commenter,

Thank you for teaching me a lesson about the internetz. I was highly dubious of your comment, given a. the anonymity and b. the plug for another webpage. My skepticism wasn't inspired so much by your specific comment, I think, as by a general wariness towards anyone promoting someone else on the internet.

But! I checked out Ted.com, and it is super cool. I haven't watched the Jill Bolte Taylor yet, but I'm listening to the Julie Taymor lecture, and it's great. So point being, thanks for the recommendation, and for teaching me a good lesson about snap judgements.

I'm curious about the Taylor piece, but I'm guessing that it's more interesting on an intellectual level than an aesthetic one. Which is cool, it just seems somewhat unfair to compare the two. But meanwhile, if this Taylor speech is what I think it will be, and you're into that, you should check out some books by Oliver Sacks, particularly The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I believe it's called. He's an excellent author who writes really interesting essays on neurological disorders, really fascinating stuff.