Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (Schnabel)

Sickness will surely take the mind
Where minds can't usually go
Come on the amazing journey
And learn all you should know

- The Who, "Amazing Journey"

And you thought your life was tough!

I'd say the main philosophical essence of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly can be boiled down to this: it doesn't take much to live a meaningful life. Here is a man who can only blink his left eye, and yet he does more in that condition than most people ever do in a lifetime.

On a basic level, Jean-Dominique Bauby's life is tragic. One day he's a handsome, talented, wealthy fashion editor, the next day he's a a victim of "locked-in syndrome," unable to move anything other than his two eyes, one of which becomes infected and is quickly sewn up. Not exactly the most pleasant situation to be in. But come on! His pre-stroke life was absurd. Imagine if he simply lived his fancy French fashion editor life, slept with beautiful women, raised a nice, loving family, ate delectable French cuisine in a luxurious chateau, and then died? Who would've cared? Sure, his life would have been nice, but it would also have been unexceptional. He would have missed out on the endless beauty of inner experience. So, in a sense, I feel bad that he had this horrible stroke, blinked his left eye for a couple of years and then caught pnuemonia and died. But on the other hand, it was the only thing that made his life truly interesting and memorable. Without the stroke and the memoir, he would have been just another rich French sleazeball.

Occasionally the film flashes back to moments in Jean-Do's pre-stroke life. And every time the film does so, you realize that you don't really relate to pre-stroke Jean-Do at all. Pre-stroke Jean-Do is callow and boring. But Jean-Do as Left Eye Man? Now this guy I like. This guy I can relate to, because his condition places him on the fringes of human experience - a more interesting place from which to dwell.

Do you ever get the feeling that you're just going through life as though you really have no control over the world around you, and all you can do is watch the world go by while you're left to deal with your own inner reactions? In some sense I often feel like I'm paralyzed - not physically, but emotionally, as though the safest thing to do is to simply step back from the flames and observe life from a distance. On some level that is the modus operandi of the film geek. Jean-Do experiences his life in much the same way as a film geek does, except he has no choice. Film geeks have a choice, but due to certain psychological problems perhaps they don't feel as though they do. I came out of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly realizing that I still have a lot of choice, and that I still have some autonomy over my body, and that I should exploit that autonomy in the here and now because it may not always be with me. It's the rare film that can make you feel grateful you're still able to move your cheekbones.

Indeed, not since possibly Memento has a film so completely taken me inside the experience of another person; it's like it cuts into the very spirit of consciousness itself. When the movie was over it took me a couple of hours before I could fully accept that I was not Jean-Do and that I could move my hands and legs just fine. Of course, with an inner life like his, Diving Bell doesn't even necessarily make "locked-in syndrome" seem all that bad half the time. As he says, "Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed: my imagination and my memory." There are scenes here that are wild and transcendent: shots of birds flying, or of glaciers crumbling in slow motion. I mean, this movie is a trip.

It's also a bit of an apology. For example, there is a moment in this film, around the one quarter mark, that packs the proverbial wallop: Up until a certain point, Jean-Do has only been able to answer yes or no questions (by blinking once for "yes" and twice for "no"). A speech therapist comes in and explains that she's devised a special alphabet that arranges letters by order of usage frequency, and that what she will do is recite letters until Jean-Do hears the one he wishes to use, and in this way he will be able to write full sentences. She is very enthusiastic and excited about this technique. Jean-Do, in voice-over, thinks to himself that this is the stupidest thing he's ever heard of and that she's reciting the letters way too fast. He finally begins to cooperate and the therapist begins spelling his sentence out loud. When she realizes, out loud, that he is spelling "I want death," she begins to cry and she starts insulting Jean-Do for his undiluted pessimism and complete lack of appreciation for her efforts. She steps out of the room, gathers her composure, and then cheerfully sits down to start again.

You see, Jean-Do's condition isn't just about Jean-Do, but also about the therapist. And what right does Jean-Do have to take away this opportunity from the therapist, who very much wants to help him communicate? And what right does he have to take away his personality and his perfectly functioning thoughts and emotions from his family, his friends, and those who still wish he remain a part of their lives? The scene made me realize what he must have realized: that even after a massive stroke, his feelings are not the only feelings that matter. And so, because the stroke does not ultimately kill him, he has the chance to reevaluate his womanizing ways and atone for his karmic sins, whatever they may be.

No, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not necessarily an easy watch. Indeed, I found the film so powerful that although I enjoyed it, I quickly felt as though I wanted to take my mind as far away from fancy French countrysides as I possibly could (which is partly why I began listening to rap). But powerful is not the same as depressing. Jean-Do does not ask for anyone's pity. He simply takes the hand that he's been dealt and he embraces that shit. Or the eye, rather.

"Film critic" rating: ****
"Little Earl" rating: ****


ninquelote said...

This was an interesting movie. On one hand it was visually very hard to watch as a good portion of the movie was shot from the point of view of Jean-Do so most of it is out of focus and shaky. On a different level I could appreciate the message and the characters because (for those who know me) I was in a similar situation at one point in my life.

I understood the feelings of depression he had and wanting to end it all. I also understood how, for all his faults, his family and friends (and even therapists) continued to love him and want him to live despite all his pain. It's not selfishness, but a fear of losing a piece of one's self.

The pivotal scene for me was about three quarters through when his wife was visiting and siting at his bedside. In the scene his mistress calls and his wife talks to her and relays a message that the mistress has been afraid to visit, but still wishes to see him sometime. Jean-Do's answer is that he will wait for her always.

Even after that, his wife continues to visit and bring the kids around. Now that's love, baby.

Little Earl said...

Yes, the women in his life seem to come to a unique understanding between Jean-Do and each other.

Some reviewers were bothered by the directorial technique, but I guess I was so sucked in by the essential drama of the story that I hardly even noticed.

Another scene I thought was fascinating: what about the friend who Jean-Do gave his plane seat to one time, only for the plane to be hijacked by Lebanese terrorists, which then led the friend to being held hostage for four years? I love how the friend comes to visit Jean-Do near the beginning of the movie, and then later on Jean-Do has a flashback to the moment when he gave up the seat to the guy. It's like this layered combination of guilt and acceptance. With all the memory/imagination interplay the movie's a bit like Fellini's 8 1/2 in that sense. Oh yeah, I'm droppin' me some film school jive baby!