Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

I remember reading about the French film Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) in The New Yorker and thinking that I really wanted to see it. This was back when it came out in 2007. Somehow, my mental note got lost in the drifts of clutter in my brain, and it wasn’t until yesterday that it fluttered up to the surface and I finally saw the movie. I’m so glad that I did, because it’s a stunning piece of cinematic art, and, as cliché as this sounds, my life is richer for having seen it.

This is the true story of French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby (former editor-in-chief of Elle magazine), who suffered a stroke, fell into a coma for three weeks and awoke to find that he couldn’t move, speak or swallow. It was determined that he had Locked-In Syndrome. Fully cognizant yet unable to communicate, his entire body paralyzed except for one eye, medical circumstances had sentenced him to a life of confinement: His body had become his jail cell.

Jean-Dominique was known as “Jean-Do” by his friends, a fact that forms a poetically interesting, rueful sort of coincidence. “Jean-Do” is pronounced like the English “John Doe,” which is the generic name American hospitals and authorities commonly assign to men of unknown identities… men with amnesia, for instance.

Jean-Do Bauby did not have amnesia. He knew exactly who he was. He could only move his left eye, but with the use of that single, flickering movement, he managed to write an entire book – his memoirs, entitled Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), in which he detailed his experience with Locked-In Syndrome and included some of his life prior to his stroke.




Jean-Do literally wrote this book with his eye. Every day, an assistant sat with him for hours reciting the letters of the alphabet arranged in order of “frequency of use.” He would blink his eye when he wanted her to stop on a certain letter, and she would write the letter down. In this fashion, he was able to form words. It took the duo almost a year to complete the book.

Years later, screenwriter Ronald Harwood’s exceptional adaptation of the book led to the production of the film, and with that, director Julian Schnabel gave us a profound experience… he gave us an inkling of what it must be like to be imprisoned in your own body. Frankly, for me, watching this film was harrowing; I was completely taken in and consumed by it. It was like being immersed in visions that triggered sensations, emotions and mental states, as Jean-Do was immersed in the deep blue depths of his isolated existence. Laced with internal dialogue, the film is a strangely beautiful collage of scenes from a dream-like inner life, flights of freedom through imaginative interludes interspersed with flash-backs and reality dappled with horrifically potent drops of fear, loneliness and regret.

“Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed, my imagination and my memory,” Jean-Do said, unforgettably (those words have haunted me since). I doubt that he experienced writer’s block while working on his book. It’s humbling to realize that I, with my two fully-functioning hands and ten fully-functioning digits, am often more paralyzed than he was when writing. Where most writers at least occasionally struggle with paralysis in their minds as they stare at the blank pages before them, Jean-Do was free.

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