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Friday, September 29, 2023


Butterfly’ transcends language

Every now and then there is a film that makes a huge impact on viewers and their look at life. Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, translated from French as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is one of those films. It doesn’t first appear to be a monumental piece of art, but even after one viewing, it clearly makes that impression on the audience.

This film, which has already won Best Film at the revered Cannes Film Festival in France in 2007, revolves around Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a successful 43-year-old French man who is the editor of Elle Magazine. Bauby has it all: a beautiful partner Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), several children,†wealth†and†a living father who is 92 years old. He also has a mistress, Ines (Agathe de La Fontaine), and he devotes so much time to his illustrious career that he often doesn’t have time for his family.

Bauby lives a great life, but it is all snatched from him when he suffers a†stroke while driving down the road with his son. He awakes from his coma weeks later to learn he’s paralyzed. He is left without the ability to move his body, one eye sealed shut and his left eye as the only movable body part. He is unable to even move his mouth to speak.

In this helpless state, Bauby likens himself to a diving bell (a spacesuit-like†diving suit) sinking to the bottom an ocean. "Words can’t express the grief that engulfs me,"†he thinks†to himself in a scene. However, he realizes that he†can still be in†the liberated state of a butterfly†because of his†vivid imagination, which allows him to think†of great things he has and has not done.

He eventually learns a form of communication that involves blinking his eyes. One blink answers "yes" to a question he receives from others, and two blinks means "no." Eventually several therapists begin working with Bauby to help him communicate. They write out letters of the alphabet, and he blinks to let them know if it’s the correct word.†

The most amazing thing about this film is that it is based on a true story that took place in 1997, and was documented in a memoir of the same name.†Director†Julian Schnabel, nominated for a Best Director for this film in†the Academy Awards and a UH alumnus, did an excellent job of transferring the book’s content to the screen.

What is particularly impressive is Schnabel’s maneuvering through the French memoir and making it accessible†to an American audience.†Instead of†reading an English translation, Schnabel learned French†in order to stay true to the memoir and to retain the language’s phrases and words that don’t have direct English equivalents.

Whenever Bauby formed words and sentences with his†main speech therapist, Claude (Anne Consigny), the words would be spelled letter by letter in French, yet Schnabel elected to translate the words in these scenes, letter-by-letter, to English, as well, which is confusing at first if you speak French, but is beneficial for English speakers’ comprehension.

The point of view in the film is often seen from Bauby’s left eye, which blinks, and becomes blurry with tears during the painstaking moments in the film, such as when Celine comes to see him for the first time since the stroke. More importantly, the film takes you into the mind of Bauby, with a first-person narrative often heard as a supplement to the dialogue spoken to Bauby.

Fortunately†for†Bauby, he still†has a book contract with a publishing company that he signed before†the stroke, and with the help of Claude, he begins to document his thoughts on paper. Though it is an extensive process, it is much easier in comparison to the conversations on the phone with his loved ones.

The most memorable is with his aged†father Papinou (Max von Sydow), who is too fragile to leave his apartment, therefore making a visit to his son impossible. The inability for Papinou’s son to respond to him over the phone leaves Papinou in tears.

Bauby eventually finishes his memoir The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, which has many memorable quotes, and upon its release it is given†much critical praise from all over France.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is a reminder for everybody to strive to make the best of what they have, and anyone who watches this film will understand that theme regardless of what language he or she speaks.

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