Can you imagine being completely paralyzed except for your left eye? I just saw this movie called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Based on the reviews, it sounded pretty depressing. But I like movies that dig down deep. And if it’s a true story, so much the better. Bring it on.
It starts with this guy waking up in a hospital on the coast of France. Jean-Dominique Bauby. The successful young editor of “Elle,” the French fashion magazine. He’d had a massive stroke that left him in a coma for three weeks. He can’t speak, so the subtitles tell you what he’s thinking. The camera is shooting from his perspective. Everything is blurry at first, and then faces emerge. It’s like being in his body. In his head.
The doctor comes in and says he’s the one who gets to tell him the bad news. He’s got “Locked-in Syndrome.” And it probably isn’t going to get any better. The brain works just fine, but nothing else does. Except that one eye. Very rare, the doctor says.
Then there’s this scene where another doctor is sewing his bad eye shut to keep it from getting septic. You see the scene from inside out. I don’t know how they did that, but you get to experience the eyelid being stitched shut, and the patient’s horror at losing half his sight. God. The things some people have to go through.
Are you still with me?
But the story isn’t about how bad things are. It’s ultimately about how he’s able to stop pitying himself. To stop wishing himself dead. It’s about the people who love him and a little about who he was before the stroke. About how he uses his imagination to escape the confines of his body.
And how, with that one good eye, he’s able to learn how to communicate using blinks, and dictate a whole book, with the help of some very patient people. The movie is based on that book. He died ten days after it was published. The “Diving Bell” refers to the feeling of being trapped in one of those heavy, old-fashioned armour-plated diving suits, and the “Butterfly” is– well, that’s pretty obvious.
Locked-in Syndrome. It’d be easy to get all platitudinous here and talk about how locked-in most of us are on the inside, if not the outside. Which is true. But, I won’t. I just want to bring some attention to a valiant spirit that was larger than the brutal fate he learned to endure. When the movie ended with his death, I felt humbled at having had the privilege of catching a glimpse of that spirit.