“Like a sailor seeing the shore disappear, I watch my past recede, reduced to the ashes of memory.”
A unique, immersive cinematic experience that makes one feel each moment as if it were his or her own; an exploration of the physicality of emotionality and thought; an indication to hang onto the “human” inside oneself.
Based on true events, the film centers around Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the glamorous editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, who experiences a devastating stroke at the age of 43. His cognitive damage results in him developing locked-in syndrome, rendering him almost completely paralyzed apart from being able to blink an eye. Throughout the film, Bauby painstakingly dictates his memoir via the only means of expression left to him.
With the help of speech therapists and friends, Bauby becomes better adapted to communicating by using the Silent Alphabet, which involves blinking his eyelid to depict the letters of words, one by one. The rest of his days ultimately are spent on spelling out his book, Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, with the help of assistants. It took him hundreds of thousands of blinks to complete it, and Bauby died shortly after it was published, without an inkling that it would become an international best seller.
Emotive cinematography and screenwriting both sit side by side at the heart of the film. For the most part, the camera moves in first person; it follows Bauby, giving the physical and emotional imagery captured on screen urgent importance. Because the lens gives viewers access to Bauby's constant line of sight, the element of vision pulls viewers intimately into the Bauby's world from a sensory standpoint. Viewers are made to heavily rely on his visual capabilities to comprehend his story and evolving condition.
Moreover, the conveyed imagery is not limited to literal elements of Bauby's locked-in syndrome - reveries about his past interactions with his family along with hypothetical encounters with his beautiful speech therapists provide a more lucid depiction of what is going on inside Bauby's head. A thematic visual shown throughout the film is Bauby suspended at the bottom of the ocean, stuck inside of an astronaut suit. Breaking from Bauby's restricted reality to small fantasies helps give alternative, sensory insight into Bauby's feelings of being secluded and trapped.
Because the visual elements had an immersive effect, one is allowed to feel a "mimicry" of the visual and communicative restrictions Bauby was undergoing, allowing oneself to understand his disposition on a more authentic level. Even his intimate, inner dialogue that runs in parallel with the spoken dialogue of his interactants reflects the communicative dissonance that shrouds his environment. Using immersive elements to illustrate the continuous, communicative friction Bauby must confront, due to his locked-in syndrome condition, makes it easy for viewers to feel as if they are experiencing a vibrant hue of what Bauby's physical and internal struggles must have felt like in real life.
Aside from the execution of illustrative cinematography and perceptive screenwriting, one of the most interesting characteristics of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was the fact that much of the film lingered on characters' faces with a Bergman-esque eye. People seemed to look "into" Bauby, allowing viewers to inherit a close-up view of nuanced, facial expressions and emotions.
This dynamic of having Bauby's seemingly frozen, immovable disposition come face-to-face with mobilized emotions and words from others points to the complexity and physicality of human expression that most presumably take for granted. Through Bauby's cinematic memoir, one is exposed to a world where an individual is rid of physical motion and must discover how to be moved to feel in the first place.
Thus, this is a story that follows a man whose emotional and physical freedom is anchored at the bottom of an ocean and who must find air beneath the surface; that acts as a portrayal of deprivation turned into a celebration of the richness of a medical recovery experience; that finds freedom in confinement. As a tribute to his life, this film will give you an unforgettable experience of seeing life, tragedy, and triumph through Bauby's eyes.