The film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly sparks Nathan Thompson to reflect on the body-mind connection, and what it means to be human when that connection is broken.
Last night, I watched a recent film based on the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby who was a French journalist and author. In his early 40s, he had a massive stroke that left him totally paralyzed, without speech, and with only one working eye. Sounds entirely bleak, doesn’t it? The movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly chronicles the last year of Bauby’s life, during which he learns to communicate by blinking to called out letters, and then uses this skill to dictate a memoir to one of his therapists. The actual memoir, which goes by the same name as the movie, was released just two day before Bauby’s death. It sold 150,000 copies in the first week, and went on to become a best seller across Europe.
One of the most powerful things about the movie is the sense of care given to ordinary details of life. Much of the film is shot through the eyes of Bauby. You’re in his mind, seeing what he sees and, given his circumstances, what he sees is fairly limited. However, there’s an almost reverent quality to the way this film pays attention: long pauses on the faces of people who come to see Bauby, and work with him; and repeated appearances of the beach outside the hospital, shot from only slightly different angles each time. Even a fly that lands on Bauby’s nose in the middle of the film is given its due.
In addition, the amazing capacity of the human imagination is on display in the film, as Bauby constructs alternate realities filled with romantic dinners and unwritten manuscripts finally written. He also reconstructs his past, partly in an attempt to make amends to those he had harmed.
During an interview clip, artist and director Julian Schnabel says he actually didn’t want to do this movie. It was more like it came to him, and he had to do it.
“I used to go up to read to Fred Hughes, Andy Warhol’s business partner, who had multiple sclerosis. And as Fred got worse, he ended up locked inside his body. I had been thinking that I might make a movie about Fred when his nurse, Darren McCormick, gave me Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Then, in 2003, when my father was dying, the script arrived from Kennedy. So it didn’t feel quite like taking on a commissioned job.”
Towards the end of the interview, Schnabel says that the movie is kind of Buddhist, and I think he’s right. One of the strong elements present was a sense that the condition of one’s body — one’s form — does not make or break being human. In some ways, Bauby was much more alive and awake during the last year of his life than at any time before then. And Schnabel’s film doesn’t show this by separating him from his body — it’s through embodying exactly where he was at that Bauby exudes aliveness. Even his dreams and imaginings always come back to the present, sometimes almost seamlessly.
A friend of mine used to volunteer in a program founded by Matthew Sanford, a paralyzed yoga teacher. This quote from Matthew rings a similar chord to the movie:
“It took a devastating car accident, paralysis from the chest down, and dependence on a wheelchair before I truly realized the importance of waking both my mind and my body.”
Odds are that many of us will never experience this kind of physical devastation, but nearly everyone seems to face, at some point or another, a traumatic event or series of events that provide great opportunities to see life clearly and live it more fully.
It’s so easy to get swamped in the negative, letting difficult circumstances take your life over until you have lost yourself completely. The beauty of this film is that it reminds us that nothing is unworkable, and that anything, even the most traumatic of events, can be used as a vehicle for transforming your life into its own greatness.
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