Francis Bacon said that a sick body is a prison. A healthy soul trapped inside an ailing shell of a body is the most personal kind of tragedy — no one can relate to that feeling unless they have experienced it themselves.
Watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly might help one relate to it a bit more. The film tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor for Elle magazine who is sent into a coma by an unexpected stroke. The film opens with Bauby waking up from the coma and discovering, to his horror, his complete inability to speak or even move. Bauby is fully aware of his surroundings, but his left eye is the only part of his body that will respond. A doctor tells Bauby that he has “locked-in syndrome,” an extremely rare condition that may or may not improve with time.
Director Julian Schnabel’s approach to the first act of the film is brilliant. Nearly every shot is from Bauby’s point of view, while a voiceover of Bauby’s thoughts is heard. This portion of the film is full of occluded lenses and jump cuts, allowing the viewer a strong sense of the disorientation Bauby must feel. This is no gimmick, however. The first-person camera work allows the audience to fully connect with the sense of claustrophobia that has overtaken Bauby. The foundation built in the opening act of the film allows the poignancy of what follows to really shine through, because the audience has truly become a part of Bauby’s situation.
Initially, Bauby is overcome with self-pity. Therapists begin to work with him to develop a method of communication, but Bauby feels no hope for any progress. Flashes of his former life are shown, and it becomes clear that he was a successful, vibrant man. No more, and it is almost more than Bauby can take.
About a third of the way into the film, however, Bauby makes the statement that he will no longer feel sorry for himself. The film is revolutionized from this point on, with the camera work moving from almost exclusively first-person to almost exclusively third-person. It’s one of many brilliant directorial choices made throughout the film.