Review of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Review of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly written by Ronald Harwood and directed by Julian Schnabel
rating *** 1/2

This is the true story of Jean-Dominque Do Bauby who at the age of 42 suffered a stroke that separated the communication between his brain stem from his spinal column, leaving him with the condition known as locked-in-syndrome. The end result was that he was fully conscious but completely paralyzed and unable to speak. If this sounds like an almost unbearable condition, you're right. It's akin to being in a vegetative state but having the ability to recognize it.

The only bodily function he had control of was the use of his eyes, though one eye had to be sewed shut because of a lack of irrigation. He communicated by blinking his one eye: one blink for yes and two blinks for no. To communicate in sentences, a translator would have to recite the alphabet until he blinked, indicating a letter. Through this method he wrote a memoir, which was the basis for the film.

A good portion of the film is told and seen from Jean-Dominique's viewpoint. It's used to great effect. It's not over done. Other viewpoints are used and you get to see him before the stroke through flashbacks.

Jean-Dominique manages to get by thanks to a caring hospital staff and visits from his children and ex-wife. Actually, the character of the ex-wife wasn't fully explained to my satisfaction. I could never determine if they were married, divorced, or just had children together. Adding to the confusion is that his ex-wife looks identical to one of his speech therapists. So I was never sure who was who. It was probably explained early on, but my ADD must have gotten in the way.

That problem aside, this is a moving story about overcoming incredible obstacles. Despite his condition he shows that he still has a sense of humor. There is a subplot involving his father that is not fully developed. The only reason it's in the film is to establish the parallels between Jean-Dominique's condition and the condition of his father, who is in poor health and confined to an upstairs room in an apartment building.

Here's what I took away from the film. Jean-Dominique was an editor at Elle magazine before his stroke. The only way he could survive was to find purpose in his life. That purpose was to write his memoir. Once that long arduous task was completed, he no longer had a driving force in his life. He died ten days after publication of the book.

The DVD has a very good making of documentary, but there is nothing on the real Jean-Dominique. There is also an audio commentary. The film is in French with subtitles.


  1. dannylhoward says

    I loved “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, but the movie I’d rather see is “My Stroke of Insight”, which is the amazing bestselling book by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. It is an incredible story and there’s a happy ending. She was a 37 year old Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke in the left half of her brain. The story is about how she fully recovered, what she learned and experienced, and it teaches a lot about how to live a better life. Her TEDTalk at TED dot com is fantastic too. It’s been spread online millions of times and you’ll see why!

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