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  • Writer's pictureJames Rutherford

'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly': An Extraordinary Depiction of the Life of Jean-Dominique Bauby

Movie poster for the French film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly starring Mathieu Amalric

Directed by celebrated artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is the true story of French journalist and fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffered a devastating stroke at the age of just 43 years old.

Almost completely paralyzed with “Locked-in Syndrome” (Pseudocoma), Bauby was left with the operation of only his left eye, forcing him to communicate via partner-assisted scanning (selection of each letter of the alphabet via blinking). Ultimately, Bauby would employ this painstaking procedure to dictate his own memoir “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon”, which became a number one bestseller across Europe in 1997, and lead to the production of this luminously biographical treatise a decade later.

The storyline of the film alternates between Bauby’s various interactions with visitors and caretakers (including the painstaking dictation of his book) and his own dream-like fantasies and memories of his life prior to paralysis. With the title, Bauby uses the diving bell to represent his self-perceived state of isolation, akin to a deep-sea diver encased in an oxygenated chamber, and the corresponding butterfly to represent the freedom he enjoys as he often journeys quite magically through his own mind’s eye. It’s a somber yet engaging film full of heart and vision, striking a fine balance between tragedy and inspiration, and featuring wonderful performances from the entire cast across the board. Very much worth seeking out.


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