Monday, December 14, 2015

Trapped Inside the Iron Flesh

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Two
Julian Schnabel (director), The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007)

In late 1995, French magazine editor, bon vivant, and inveterate womanizer Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a stroke. When he awoke, the essential functions of his brain had become completely disconnected from his body. He would never recover the ability to use any part of his body except his eyes, one of which was so damaged, it had to be sewn shut to prevent infection. He would live the entire rest of his life entirely by blinking his left eye.

This movie is based on the memoir Bauby managed to dictate to a special assistant using blink responses. The title metaphor declares that he has become divided. His body has become a massive steel diving bell, submerged deep beneath an ocean he has no hope of escaping, silent and alone. But his mind remains free as a butterfly, traversing the world, reliving his greatest adventures, and constantly making new discoveries. His prison has become his freedom.

Bauby struggles, slowly, to overcome the limitations which his newly limp, leaden body places upon him. He must reconcile with the family whom he alienated with his wild living and his unconcern for their feelings. Through flashbacks, we discover the life he once lived, all glamour and flashbulbs and selfish consumption, a train wreck of hedonism playing out across years. He thought he needed nobody else, and lived like the center of his own universe.

Then the realities of biology collided with him. The movie plays it out like karmic retribution, as though he suffered a stroke in recompense for his heedless ways. This is magical thinking, of course, a retrospective explanation Bauby (or his film adapters) invented for narrative purposes, but if it’s fiction, it’s useful fiction, and the contrast between his past arrogance, and the humility he must now learn, offers a striking contrast of styles and impacts.

Mathieu Amalric (in the bed) as Jean-Dominique Bauby, composing his book,
with the assistance of a transcriptionist (Anne Cosigny)

The difficulties of “Locked-In Syndrome,” in which severe damage to the brain stem creates a permanent gulf between the rational mind and the body, have been explored before. Philosophers have pondered what this syndrome says about the supposed dualism between soul and flesh. Filmmakers have exploited the helplessness and implicit mortality for horror value. However, telling this story through Bauby’s lived experience, we get a completely different, unexpected viewpoint.

(To its credit, the movie avoids medical jargon and scientific-ese. Though highly specialized in its insights, it doesn’t require technical expertise to understand unfolding events.)

The movie’s title, even more powerful in the original French, Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, reflects Bauby’s new two-pronged life. Bauby experiences his body as an old-fashioned steel diving suit, a massive piece of metal trapping him in a strange world with no external contact and limited oxygen. Life becomes a struggle of complete isolation as lovers abandon him, friends address him like an object, and strangers ignore him.

But Bauby quickly separates himself from his unreliable senses. He retains the trait that makes him unique, his mind; and inside his isolated brain, he travels extensively, revisits the triumphs of his youth, and becomes a creature of pure experience. As he achieves this near-Buddhist state of mindful simplicity, he overcomes what other writers (like me) might consider limitations, and composes his memoirs, an eventual bestseller, entirely in his head.

These conflicting impulses, the iron cage of his flesh and the flittering butterfly of his mind, play out across Bauby’s story. Reality is told in fleeting glimpses, all washed-out colors and smeared images, reflecting Bauby’s inability to perceive reality clearly. But when venturing inside his mind, Bauby’s perceptions become hyperreal, saturating the senses and almost overwhelming the audience. Bauby’s two-track life, desperate helplessness and complete freedom, play out before us.

Not everyone will like this film. Like most French cinema, indeed like the French language itself, it unfolds with soporific grace. This film doesn’t adhere to the three-act structure English-speaking audiences have come to expect from their cinema. Viewers unaccustomed to international films may have difficulty adjusting their viewing habits to this film’s hypnotic, wave-like cadences. This isn’t a film for world cinema newbies.

However, art-house movie fans and students of cerebrovascular medicine will both find plenty to like in this film. Audiences willing to adjust themselves to this film’s flow will enjoy, even learn from, Bauby’s journey of self-discovery. Learning to master his newly limp body, and to live entirely within his mind, is hard for him. Watching that discovery is hard for us. Yet in the end, we feel we’ve undertaken that journey with him. And like him, we feel renewed.

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