Le scaphandre et le papillon
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Synopsis for
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) More at IMDbPro »Le scaphandre et le papillon (original title)

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On December 8, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby - age forty-three and editor-in-chief of the world-famous fashion magazine Elle - was living the "good life" to the extreme when he became the victim of a devastating cerebro-vascular accident that left him in a state of total paralysis, incapable of any verbal communication, in what is known in the medical community as "locked-in syndrome." His mental faculties totally intact as he lay motionless in his bed at the Marine Hospital of Berck-sur-Mer in northern France, Bauby learned to communicate with the outside world using his left eyelid, the only part of his body over which he still had any control. During the next fourteen months, using a communication code developed by his therapist and his publisher's assistant, who transcribed this code, Bauby was able to compose, letter by letter, a lyrical and heartbreaking memoir of his life struggle. Bauby died in 1997, two days after its publication.

As the film opens, Bauby, known as Jean-Do to his intimates, comes out of a three-week deep coma, unaware of what happened to him, what is going on around him, and where he is. What we see is not a person lying in a hospital bed, but a blurred image with some silhouettes moving in and out of it. "What's going on?" we ask, and so does Jean-Dominique, in a voice-over (Mathieu Amalric). The image soon becomes clearer, and we understand we are looking subjectively, from Jean-Do's point of view, at a hospital room.. Soon, the face of a man who identifies himself as Dr. Mercier (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) appears in our field of view, asking questions. Jean-Do answers, but his answers are not understood by the doctor, as Jean-Do cannot speak: we are only hearing his internal voice.

Suspense is built as the patient's face is progressively revealed. We first get a glimpse of Jean-Do's face reflecting in a mirror as he is being wheeled in the great hall of the hospital. His reaction to his reflection is, "God, who's that? I look like I came out of a vat of formaldehyde." Indeed, it takes about thirty minutes into the film before we get to clearly see Bauby's distorted, frozen face.

Hospital assistants introduce themselves to Jean-Do, assuring him of their total dedication to his medical care and well-being, including his speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), who will teach him the communication code, his physiotherapist, Marie Lopez (Olatz López Garmendia), and Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais), a neurosurgeon who will supervise Jean-Do's care. Besides the hospital's therapist team, there is also Cline (Emmanuelle Seigner), his estranged partner and the mother of his three children.

The therapy which permits a way to communicate consists of the alphabet, arranged in the order in which letters would be most often used (ESARINTULOMDPCFBVHGJQZYXKW); she begins reciting this alphabet, and he blinks when she says the needed letter. Once a word is begun, the therapist can often guess the word after a few letters, saving time and effort. The therapy starts on a rather disappointing note, when a desperate Jean-Do dismisses Henriette. "It won't work. Leave me alone." He changes his mind following the visit of an old friend, Roussin (Niels Arestrup), who had been a hostage for four years in Beirut. Relating his own experience, he tells Bauby, "Hang on to the human who is inside you," to which Bauby answers, "Easy said." However, on his second encounter with his speech therapist, to Henriette's great distress Jean-Do spells out, "I want to die." Jean-Do's remarkable strength of character eventually leads him to acknowledge his desperate situation, but also to realize that he still has his imagination and his memories. In a beautiful metaphor, we see a diving bell which physically imprisons the patient, and the freeing of his imagination in the form of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis and fluttering among fields of flowers.

Bauby had a book contract with a publisher, Betty (Anne Alvaro), to write the feminine version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Betty is incredulous when, aware of her client's present condition, she receives a phone call from Henriette, informing her that Jean-Do is willing and able to fulfill the terms of his contract. Bauby, in order to survive his ordeal without losing his mind, had decided to write a memoir, if only to prove to his ex-colleagues that he is not a "vegetable." ("What kind? "he asks, "a carrot? a leek?") Still somewhat skeptical, Betty sends an assistant, Claude (Anne Consigny), to take Jean-Do's dictation. Soon the dictation starts. It's a slow, tedious process, where Jean-Do wakes at 5 a.m., and until 8 a.m., composes and memorizes parts of the text beforehand to be later "dictated" to Claude. The progress is painstaking: only one to one-and-a-half pages of text per day. Jean-Do develops a very close relationship with Claude, to the point that she seems to fall in love with him.

In what follows, we see episodes of Jean-Do's fantasies, a mixture of memories and dreams, some poignant and some comical or sexy, with some fantastic mise-en-scnes. For example, elusive appearances by characters such as Nijinsky (Nicolas Le Riche) or Empress Eugenie (Emma de Caunes); symbolic scenes like Bauby in his wheelchair on an isolated pontoon in the beach at Berk; glaciers crumbling into the sea; a wild dinner at famed Paris' Le Duc seafood restaurant, with a beautiful woman. There is a marvelously touching recollection of Jean-Do joking and teasing his 92-year-old father, Papinou (Max von Sydow), while shaving him. Cline comes to see him often at the hospital and help out as much as she can, organizing a picnic on the beach with the whole family on Father's Day, or reading to Jean-Do the voluminous mail that he receives daily.

The ending of this film consists of a dream sequence showing the opening scene of Truffaut's The 400 Blows, but this time the film is in color, as Jean-Do is driving through Paris in his new car. He is happily going to see his children at his estranged wife's country house. He takes his son, Theophile (Théo Sampaio) for a ride and suffers a stroke.


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