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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Let Your Imagination Set You Free. 

Year: 2008 
Running Time:
Aspect Ratio: Unknown 
Certificate: BBFC 12A Cert – Under 12s admitted only with an adult 
Subtitles: It is expected that this film is fully subtitled. 
Directed by Unknown 
Starring: Unknown  
An image from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Director: Julian Schnabel

Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an adaptation of a novel written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle magazine in France. After having suffered a stroke, he is afflicted with ‘locked in syndrome’, a paralysis so severe that he can move nothing but his left eye. His speech therapist Henriette manages to devise a method of communication. She reads a series of letters to him, and he blinks when she says the letter he wants to use. This is a painfully slow method of communication, but it enables him to write his novel.

The film is shot mostly from Jean-Dominique’s point of view, a fascinating and highly effective technique. He speaks to us as a voiceover; we literally hear what he is thinking, when no one else can. It is this intimacy that makes the film so touching. We hear his sarcastic comments when doctors use euphemisms or make ridiculous suggestions to him, his flirtatious thoughts about the nurses, his frustrations when someone turns off the TV while he is watching a football match. This brings a personal humour to the film and rounds out the character perfectly. It also makes it more poignant when his thoughts are not positive, but sombre or depressed. We also gain access to Jean-Dominique’s memories or fantasies, into which he frequently delves as an escape from his condition.

You are also in his physical position. You end up with at least a semblance of how trapped he feels. You have to hear Henriette repeat the same letters, over and over, as many times as he does. You genuinely feel for this man because the film is making you go through, only for a few hours, what he went through for over a year. His capacity to remain positive in this situation seems astounding.

For such an unhappy story, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a surprisingly uplifting viewing experience. It highlights the awful nature of Bauby’s condition by showing the lively, talented and courageous mind behind the crippled body. Not to mention the accomplishment that is the novel. It is very much a celebration of life and the power of the mind as well as the story of a tragic accident. This is an amazing film, beautifully and considerately made and thought provoking without harassing its audience. Ultimately, it’s life-affirming stuff.

Steph Janes

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Screenings of this film:

2007/2008 Summer Term (35mm)