The most powerful works of art connect us to ourselves and each other. They awaken us, un-distract us, and bring us home to the substance of life: a touch, a taste, a color. They affirm human existence in its romance and tragedy alike. Our time here is brief, they remind us; we are duty bound to savor the wonders around us while we may.
Like Rilke wrote in his Ninth Duino Elegy:
…To be here means so much / …everything here, all this that’s disappearing, seems to need us, to concern us, in some strange way, / we who disappear / even faster!
Good art touches us at our own uniquely human core. I believe it resonates on a level profoundly more intimate than the “everybody’s reading it, seeing it, listening to it” craze often sparked by honors bestowed upon a book, a song, or a film from this or that committee of judges.
So maybe it’s fitting that this little film review should concern a quiet little movie nominated for four 2008 Academy Awards, which remained conspicuously absent from the proceedings onstage at the Oscars last week, for while viewing this film I had one of the most astonishingly personal, emotional art-experiences of my life. Actually, I phrase it badly to say I viewed the movie at all; I inhabited it, would be more correct. It’s called The Diving Bell & the Butterfly.
Based on the true story of Jean Dominique-Bauby, an elite epicurean from the French fashion world, the movie explores Jean’s bodily and spiritual trauma in the aftermath of a devastating stroke that left him paralyzed at age 43. At the start of the film he awakens from a 20-day coma to find himself surrounded by doctors who inform him he’s “locked in,” that is, afflicted by a rare syndrome that leaves him fully conscious and capable of normal thought, but unable to move or speak. He can blink his eyes, nothing more.
From this place of bleakness and despair, an unthinkably expansive journey begins. In a mesmeric approach to the paralytic’s story, director Julian Schnabel puts the viewer directly into Bauby’s body. We see through the stricken man’s eyes and are privy to the murmurous narration of his thoughts. We are “locked in” as he is. A shutter closes on screen whenever we blink. It’s a startling out-of-body experience. With Bauby, we suffer one eye being sewn shut (to save it from infection); in a wheelchair we’re pushed down a hospital corridor and catch glimpses of our contorted face reflected in a window; our limp body is submerged in a tank, sponged and scrubbed by orderlies.
We are completely dependent upon the doctors and hospital therapists, and very soon we come to love these people. They are good-hearted and generous of spirit. They are beautiful.
Bauby’s real story culminated in the publication of a memoir about his experience, entitled The Diving Bell & the Butterfly. Amazingly, he “dictated” the book in the midst of his paralysis, blinking his single good eye as a means of selecting, one at a time, each letter of each word he wished to use. In the film, we participate in Bauby’s first slow attempts at this process.
Eventually Schnabel’s camera pulls back. We glimpse Bauby from the outside. And though we’re now looking at him, we remain inside him. Because the trance of the film’s empathic opening lingers, we’re attuned to his interior world as we watch him in his wheelchair, his hospital bed—and also in memories from before the stroke, when he was in his physical prime. Through it all, this interior world becomes a luminous, living place.
This man has lost everything: his body itself, the pleasures of movement, sensation, privacy, personal freedom—but his spirit is alive and well, perhaps even freer than ever. The “locked in” man transcends his condition. He imagines, loves, and creates, and we are swept along on this spiritual journey.
Bauby wrote in his memoir:
My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.
Schnabel’s film positively resonates with the preciousness of life in all its sensual particulars. It explores how art and imagination liberated one human spirit; how, even in his “broken” state a man could celebrate the pulsing beauty of existence. And where Jean Dominique-Bauby is set free by his own art, thoughts, dreams, and memories, we too are set free through the art of the film that tells his story. We take flight into him, as he takes flight into the gifts of life.
It’s an experience equivalent to what Rilke describes later on in his Ninth Elegy:
Between the hammer strokes our hearts survive / like the tongue / that between the teeth / and in spite of everything / goes on praising.I emerged from The Diving Bell & the Butterfly renewed, inspired, and alert to a fresh immersion into my own senses. This film is a gift.
[Note: Rilke translations here are by David Young.]