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The diving bell and the butterfly

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Locked-in syndrome is a condition in which the patient is aware and totally awake, however is completely paralyzed from head to toes, except for the eyes. The verbal communication is therefore completely impossible, and the only way for these patients to communicate is by blinking the eyes in order to respond to questions or communicate words. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of Jean Dominic Bauby’s memoirs, a Parisian journalist who suffered a stroke in 1995 and was condemned to live for the rest of his life prisoner of his own body, demonstrates through emotional and poignant scenes the difficulties and challenges that such a disability brings to one’s life. Throughout filming technics and cinematographic devices, Schnabel is able to bring the audience in the life of a locked-in syndrome patient, and live the emotions that such a disability brings to the patient that suffers from it.

The movie opens up with the blurry opening of Bauby’s eyes as he regains consciousness in a hospital room. The “Lens whacking” technic is used to create the lighting effect of Bauby’s wakening. From this point on, the audience is placed in Bauby’s situation, and point of view, which can create almost a sense of claustrophobia at first due to the unfamiliarity of such a long POV shot. Usually a POV shot is used intermittently through regular 3rd person shots of camera. However, in this movie almost the entire first half of it is shot from Jean-Do’s POV which emphasizes his disability and everything he has to deal with in order to simply being understood, while his mind is physically trapped into his dead body. When Bauby blinks, the screen quickly goes black to reproduce the effect, and when his eyes become filled with tears the screen becomes blurry.

These filming technics are called suture technics, which helps the viewers forget that the camera is doing the looking. It stiches up the viewer into the films world and by the same way makes the viewer resent the same emotion than the one living them on screen in this case Jean-Dominic Beauby. The best example of the suture technic used in this movie, occurs in the scene where the doctors sows up Bauby’s right eye because it had no longer the ability to blink, and was dysfunctional. The use of extreme close up emphasizes how defenseless Jean-Do is. Also, it is only after the intervention that the doctor clearly explains to Jean-Do why they had to do such a thing. This scene seizes the viewer and brings up a feeling of vulnerability, that Beauby’s, or anybody with such a disability experiences everyday of their lives. Through this scene Schnabel is able to make the viewer understand the level of confidence a disable person has to have in others, and how these person are at anybody’s mercy.

From the first scene of the movie, the viewer starts to understand Jean-Do’s situation. We hear his internal voice as he attempts to answer the first questions from the medical staff before realizing that they cannot hear him because he cannot speak aloud. The viewer starts to realize at the same time as Beauby himself, the extend, and the gravity of his paralysis. As we hear Beauby’s inner thoughts and “monologues” it is clear that his sense of humor has also survived the stroke, as well as his sense of self respect, his libido and his love for others. He wishes to be treated equally and with respect, like any other human being. The use of flashbacks is also very important to that movie, and for the viewer to understand who Beauby was before the stroke. Because of these flashbacks, the audience quickly understands the fast paste and energetic life Beauby was living, as an editor in chief for the Elle Magazine. The music is more energetic during the flashback, and more melancholic and quiet during the scenes in the hospital, which is a visual metaphor that clearly exposes the reality of someone who suffers a stroke, and stays completely paralyzed from it. These flashbacks demonstrate to the viewer how powerful, and realistic Beauby’s memories really are, and how he is able to travel and live through them.

On the other hand, in the second half of the movie, the focus is less on the understanding of Bauby’s disability but on his acceptance of it. As the fist half of the movie is shot almost entirely from Jean-Do’s POV, and puts the viewers in his state of mind, the second half is shot mostly from a third person camera shot, which allows more objectivity from the audience. Although, Beauby would clearly wish to escape his “prison”, he gradually starts to understand that it is now a vital aspect of his life and that in order to overcome this situation and live in peace with himself, he has to accept it and make the best of it. As Steve Vineberg notes, the title of the work “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is a clear paradox of liberating the imagination of a character whose body is a prison1. Throughout the movie, Schnabel demonstrates how Bauby’s rebirth into a disabled person, as we can call it, makes him acquire a more humble love for life. He clearly appreciates more the simple things in life that before he always took as granted.

This movie exposes how such a dramatic situation can bring positive outcome to one’s life. As Beauby says himself: “Had I been blind and deaf, or did it take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature?”2 This line demonstrates how Beauby see’s his disability as a positive aspect of his life and, throughout this disability he found his true identity. Even though “he may be physically captive within a suffocating, inescapable diving bell, but his mind can appreciate the kindness governing his hourly routine, enjoy luxuriant memories, or glide, flitting like a butterfly, on to new imagined experiences.”3 Julian Schnabel covers this severe case with great gentleness. He remains faithful to the experience of the patient, which contains no kind of self-pity. He exposes the reality of Beauby without dramatizing any situation. Even the most emotional scenes, with his father or his children are displayed with great gentleness and with the same touch of realism that Beauby uses himself in his memoirs. However, another aspect of the film that is worth mentioning is the portrayal of the lonely place where these patients are “parked” while the rest of us continue to live our normal lives. This movie shows the viewers how patients are isolated not only from other living beings, but also from other patients who still have some hope of re-entering society.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, tries to brake the stereotypical portrayal of physical disability, and the discourse of pity and isolation associated with disabled patients like Jean-Dominic Beauby. Throughout this movie, Julian Schnabel uses innovative filming technics to put the viewer in the patients state of mind, in order to expose the stress and pain of being confined to our own body, and also to the joy and satisfaction of understanding how strong and resilient our mind and memory is. This story is a great example of courage and strength that reveals the reality of disable people who depend on other to survive. Being fully conscious, but trapped in inanimate body brings a feeling of claustrophobia and vulnerability to anyone with a sense of empathy.


Vineberg, S. (2008) The Threepenny Review, Point of view. Retrieved from .

Goodpasture, J. (April 1998) Flying from within, The English Journal. Retrieved from .

Bauby, Jean-Dominique. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death. Hammersmith: HarperCollins, 1997.

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