Mathieu Americ as the paralyzed Jean Dominique Bauby and Marie Jose'e-Croze as Speech Therapist Henriette Roi.
When done right, movies have the ability to sort of place the viewer in the moment of a character. Not literally, but at least in empathetical terms. Last weekend, I saw a movie that did this well, it was the French film The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (2007). Butterfly tells the true story of Jean Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle magazine who at the age of 43 suffered a massive stroke. The stroke left Bauby almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak. Bauby's speech therapist devised a way for Bauby to communicate with the one muscle he had full control of, his left eye lid. By blinking when the correct letter was read to him, Bauby was able to communicate and even dictated the book that this film would be based on shortly before his death.
Directed by Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls), Butterfly places you in the "mind" of Bauby. From his point of view, you see Doctors hover over his face, friends cry or comfort, flights of fancy through his imagination and cherished memories flooding through. The anguished feeling of loss, the loss of communication, mobility and many of the things people take for granted in life come to the fore. Through a mix of first person perspective shots, voice over monologues and stream of consciousness scene changes that insular, trapped feeling of "locked-in" syndrome (the diagnosis given to Bauby) is palpable.
Forgetting the tragedy that fell Bauby for a moment, this type of movie can be very tricky to pull off. Done wrong, it can be dull and self indulgent. Particularly when showing memories of Bauby before the stroke, as a slightly selfish European playboy of sorts and caring father/son, there could be an instinct to sentimentalize the character. Schnabel keeps the focus on Bauby's intellectual cynicism and force of will to survive and retain a sense of humanity. Actor Mathieu Amalric shares the vision and turns in a masterful performance. To their credit, they show both the positive and negative side of the Bauby character to reveal a definite sense of personality.
Not having heard of Bauby before this film, I couldn't say how accurate or inaccurate the depiction of Bauby or his plight is. What I can say is that on film, Bauby is a full blooded character and very human. At turns petulant, kind, curious and adventurous it feels like a real person on film. By the end of the movie I felt both saddened for Bauby, impressed by him and grateful to be alive (which sounds horrible, I don't mean that cruelly). The Diving Bell and The Butterfly displays the beauty and variety of life by depicting the viewpoint of a person who had the world at his feet suddenly placed at arms length from it. While the film falls a little short of being a classic, I found The Diving Bell and The Butterfly to be genuinely moving and artistically fascinating.