Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not
one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by
your Father. And even the hairs of your head are
all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more
value than many sparrows.
American director Julian Schnabel and British screenwriter Ronald Harwood join forces to transform Frenchman Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir into a mesmerizing film. Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) was the editor of the French fashion magazine Elle until a stroke laid him low. And I do mean low, the once high-flying bon vivant completely paralyzed except for his left eye, the doctors calling his condition “locked-in syndrome.” This is a good description of his condition, Jean-Do, as his family calls him, confined entirely to his mind and the limited vision of his one good eye. He cannot even swallow, his food having to be injected through a tube attached to his throat, his stroke induced coma lasting 20 days. When he woke up he was told that he was in a special clinic at Berck-sur-Mer. His mind was intact, so he was able to express his thoughts, but not to others, which came as a devastating shock to him.
The camera provides a sense of what he went through by viewing the world through his eye. The camera provides us not with the usual watching experience of a movie, but rather, with seeing what Jean-Do is able to see. This takes some getting used to, the image often blurry, skewed in its angle of vision, and sometimes double-visioned or fading to black. Only when he is imagining or recalling past incidents do we get the conventional all-seeing eye view we are accustomed to in a film. The effect is to feel at least a little of the locked-in experienced by the patient. At times we long to see more beyond the narrow frame of Jean-Do’s vision. Thus I should have added the name of the cameraman, Academy Award winner Janusz Kaminski, to those of the director and writer as creators of the film.
Jean-Do can move his eye, but not his head. And he can also blink, and it is this latter ability that provides his connection with the world outside of his head. After an unimpressive attempt at being friendly, Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais) introduces him to the two women who will be working closest with him on a day to day basis, Marie Lopez – Olatz Lopez Garmendia) and Henriette Durand (Marie-Josee Croze), the latter being his speech therapist. It is she who devises a chart of the alphabet beginning in descending order with the letters used the most in speaking. Telling him to blink once for “Yes” when she comes to a letter in the word he wants to speak, and twice for “No,” she offers him the means to communicate.
Because the process is so laborious, Jean-Do resists at first, threatening to fall back into a pit of self-pity, but Henriette will not allow him to do so. She persists, going over and over the letters written on her card until obtaining at last the word in his mind. If ever an award for “Most Persistent Person” were to be passed out, she should tie with Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher. Indeed, this film might well remind you of The Miracle Worker, also a marvelous film about a person imprisoned inside her body.
The film never suggests that Jean-Do is a saint: from the moment when he is introduced to his two attractive therapists, he is drawn to their bosoms. When one takes him to a church, he tries to say “No” to the kindly priest’s question about receiving Communion, but his therapist over-rules him, telling the clergyman that he does. If there are saints in this film, it is Henrietta and Jean-Do’s former lover Celine Desmoulin (Emmanuelle Seigner), the latter who bore him three children. Even his once philandering father Papinou tells him during a long ago visit that he should have married her, rather than walking out on her. (Max Von Sydow turns in a terrific performance as the 90 year-old, who in a painfully long telephone conversation with his son, tells him that they are both locked in.) Celine has to endure a humiliating phone call between Jean-Do and his present mistress in order to translate for him.
How the locked in man came to write The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (published in 1997), assisted by Claude (Anne Consigny), is a story of persistence and grace. I was thinking of the latter while following all of the efforts of a host of people in attending to the needs of Jean-Do. Despite the secularity of modern French culture, there is still a set of Christian values embedded in it. In some cultures, a person as totally dependant on others for even his basic needs, would be considered useless and abandoned to die. Or, in Nazi Germany he might be used as the object of some gruesome experiment. But, as Jesus taught that God valued even a sparrow, and thus even more, a human being, so our Western culture values even one as helpless as Jean-Do—for the most part: how might his situation be used as an argument for euthanasia or self-assisted suicide? Who would have guessed that such a movie book would have arisen out of his excruciating experience—and from it, such a moving film?
There is a spoiler at the end.
1) How did you feel during the first part of the film when what you saw was confined to Jean-Do’s point of view? Upset (with the filmmaker)? Impatient? How does this technique increase your understanding of what Jean-Do was experiencing?
2) Were you surprised at the amount of humor in such a grim story? What was your favorite funny moment?
3) What do you think of the doctor’s advice at the beginning, “Hold fast to the human that is inside you, and you will survive” ? What was Jean-Do’s reaction to this at first? How do we see him gradually following it?
4) Think upon Jean-Do’s comment: “Only two things are not paralyzed—my thoughts and my imagination. They are the only way I can escape from my diving bell.” How do we see this happening in the film? (Those who know the film Shawshank Redemption might compare this with Red’s comment upon Andy’s playing the Mozart aria over the prison sound system.) Have you been confined to a bed or house by an illness and found a similar freedom? Was it through TV, films, a book, or—?
5) What seems to be Jean-Do’s relationship with his father? How is the father’s compliment a great source of comfort to the son?
6) What kind of a person does Henrietta and Celine seem to be? What trait or quality especially stands out in them? Agents of grace? What incidents especially show this?
7) What do you make of Jean-Do’s memory of his trip to Lourdes with his mistress? What does this show of the ability of humans to cheapen religious faith? How is the way that Jean-Do winds up in front of the store window with the tawdry “one-of-a-kind” statue of the Virgin an echo of what one of the Biblical prophets might view Lourdes? What effect do you think that the commercialization of religion have on non-believers? (Compare this sequence to that at the beginning of the film Dogma in which the bishop presents to the press his statue of the “Buddy Jesus.” )
8) How did you feel at the end of the film, even with the news of Jean-Do’s fate? Where do you see God in the film? Given his book, could you say that this is a good example of what the apostle Paul might mean when he wrote Romans 8:28?