Monday, 4 January 2010

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly




Locked in syndrome - courtesy of antoine877
Essay Question: 11 - Through a close analysis of one of the films viewed in the subject, explore Siegfried Kracauer's delineation of the role that film can play in the "redemption of physical reality".

This essay will define the redemption of the physical reality for a man trapped in his metaphor 'the diving bell' and 'the butterfly' which gave him the freedom to dream. Within this rare neurological disorder referred to as 'locked-in syndrome' a medical term coined by Plum and Posner in 1966. Often referred to in the medical profession as "the closest thing to being buried alive" (Wikipedia, 2009). The normal outcome is usually the patient's inability to move or communicate orally as a result of a cerebrovascular accident which in layman's terms a massive brain-stem stroke. This nightmare was just the beginning for Jean-Dominique Bauby after he regained consciousness after three weeks in a coma. He appeared to be paralysed from head to toe except for his ability to blink his eyelids. This 43-year-old former editor of the French version of Elle had no audible voice to communicate his sense of horror of being trapped in a body no longer functioning as a whole interconnected interface between brain and spinal cord. However the thinking and language processes of Jean-Dominique were still valid within his prison of morbid decaying flesh without a lock in which to turn the key to escape. The film 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' explores the two year journey from the first person perspective of how his memoir was written to empower the author and show the strength of the human spirit.




Charles Trenet La Mer English subtitles - courtesy of lightning494
The opening credits of 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' are composed of a series of x-rays of a human being which adds quite a creepy visual stripping away of the layers to reveal how precious life is with the soulful undertones of the song 'La Mer'. There is the bizarre sensation of two bloodshot eyes blinking and trying to focus in the salmon pink room as the nursing staff suddenly notice there is a spark of life emerging from the chrysalis of Jean-Dominique. The blurring of the visual imagery of the pink roses on green stems as the curtains move in the breeze. Dappled sunlight dances on the wall producing patterns of bizarre notions reflecting back into the retinas of this patient. There is the concerned hospital orderly trying to give encouragement by asking Jean-Dominique to keep his eyes open and the strange aspect of too many faces looming too close. The information about how like sleeping beauty he has awoken from a coma and yet tongue-tied as the despairing voice of the patient can only be heard by the film audience but not by the people in the room. The words "can you hear me" (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) echo around the room like the 'Silent Scream' painting as Jean-Dominique realises there is no sound coming from his vocal cords. The droning voice of the doctor and the misinformation concerning this extremely rare medical condition deemed to be the most difficult to treat successfully. The unrealistic prompt to make Jean-Dominique to recall verbally his identity, children and the stroke is extremely upsetting but patience is the logical pathway for the moment for this very frightened patient (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

A razor cutting across an eyeball - courtesy of JR9979

For Jean-Dominique there is the surreal notion that he could almost reach out and touch the rough stubble of the doctor Lepage's chin. The embittered realisation that he was abandoned in the wasteland called the Berck-sur-Mer Hospital near the coast too far away from Paris and the love of his love. There was also the indignity of the blinding glare of the torch examining the very nature of the only visible functioning parts of his anatomy the windows to the soul, his two eyes. The overwhelming beauty of the roses perks his curiosity about the person who placed this fragile statement of love too fleeting in this hospital room touched by death. The movement of the woman reminding him of Ines the mistress triggers Jean-Dominique's flashback of the fragmented imagery of the shocked expression of his son and the sense of falling into a abyss of blackness. There is the patient's strange fearful sensation of his male psyche being exposed like a naked man for the nursing staff to be able to scrutinize and judge the withering of his manhood and the loss of control over his life. The underlying cause is unknown as Jean-Dominique did not smoke although he did sometimes drink in moderation and to the doctor everything appears to be normal as the patient's brain is still functioning with exception of the issue with the right eye. Jean-Dominique's horrified reaction to the sewing up of his right eye to prevent his cornea going septic as the surgeon talked about his trip to St Moritz and so "a face on the screen may attract us as a singular manifestation of fear or happiness regardless of the events which motivate its expression" (Kracauer, 1996, p.303). There is also the example of the sixteen minutes of the silent black and white surrealist film 'Un chien andalou' produced by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali with the dream logic interpretation of Freudian symbolism such as the woman's eye being cut with the cut-throat razor by her husband in the opening scene enhances the audience's curiosity of the morbid (Wikipedia, 2009) Both examples of these films are reliant on the preceded realities of the audience, "in order to make us experience the physical reality, films must show what they picture" (Kracauer, 1996, p.300) otherwise the meaning is lost (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).



The Diving Bell and the Butterfly trailer released - courtesy of blastmagazine


The promise of mobility in the form of a wheelchair deflates all his expression of ever being normal again for Jean-Dominique. When the audience is introduced through the only remaining functioning eye of Jean-Dominique, to the monster he has become seemingly extracted from the vat of formaldehyde which is why "the mirror reflections of horror are an end in themselves" (Kracauer, 1996, p.306). The surprise was Celine, the first visitor welcomed by the doctor who assumed that this was the wife of Jean-Dominique. There were so many prayers for your full recovery which caused the tears to flow from the one and only eye on the world for Jean-Dominique. The station platform is a desolate place to wait as the woman who is just the mother of Jean-Dominique's children and nothing more. Celine used to be the long-tern partner who was discarded unlike her children too cherished by Jean-Dominique for the thrill of the fling without any strings attached or so he thought. The embittered past is revealed on the other platform with Jean-Dominique as the lonely child standing next to his father waiting for the train to Paris. The physiotherapist is back in the hospital room blowing kisses rekindling the memories best forgotten for Jean-Dominique as the fragments of time come together to haunt him with too many regrets. The beauty of this woman overwhelms this man unable to fulfill his sexual desires not in real-time at least. There is reference to how the models in the Elle magazine are shaped like human toothpicks with boyish looks which is an odd fashion concept. Therefore the guilt for Jean-Dominique of never contacting the hostage of Beirut whose term of imprisonment lasted four years was in some ways akin to how this second visitor could relate to the prison-like state of
'locked-in syndrome'. How did Jean-Dominique's conscience come to terms that fate had protected him from harm that day and "if the senses exert an influence on our spiritual life, the cinema becomes a powerful ferment of spirituality by augmenting the number and quality of our sense perception" (Kracauer, 1996, p.309). This gesture of kindness from Jean-Dominique of giving up his seat so another could travel is an irony of how this man was deprived of his freedom through the actions of hijackers. Imprisoned in what is referred to as his tomb consisting of a cellar too dank and dark with the suicidal thoughts of a prisoner trying to cling to what makes you human. There was no choice for either party but to survive with their sanity intact and make the best of the card fate had handed to both men (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)


Blue Moon - Chris Isaak - courtesy of lolabluemoon

This empowering concept of this alphabet method was devised by the speech therapist Henriette Durand to help Jean-Dominique to be able to communicate by blinking once for yes and twice for no. Henriette would recite the letters out ever so slowly and Jean-Dominique would blink and in time, words and full sentences would evolve such as the first visible concrete thought "I want to die" (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). This patient was so tired of the process of being just being in possession of his heartbeat and struggling to come to terms that his voice and body were forever lost to to him. Jean-Dominique's realistic notion that life was not worth living because he was unable to take his own life as a result of being paralysed which for the film audience "it brings us face to face with the things we dread" (Kracauer, 1996, p.303). A gift of a small toy motorcycle brought by another visitor who leans over and arranges a strange furry thingy on top of Jean-Dominique's head. The latest gossip is that he has become a vegetable and the question being for him is what type, a carrot or pickle? This former editor of Elle had been reduced to an object of ridicule and "in lifting all things out of their chaos before replunging them in the chaos of the soul, the cinema stirs large waves in the later, like those which a sinking stone produces on the surface of the water" (Kracauer, 1996, p.308). On hindsight for Jean-Dominique there are too many regrets about the women he was unable to love and the lost moments too precious so easily dismissed by a man who was too selfish to ever to consider the very nature of self. One day the self-pity was conquered as he replaced his demons with his imagination and memories. These were the two keys of freedom to unlock his diving bell and flee temporarily in the guise of this newly emerged butterfly of many colours from the tomb-like cacoon of flesh. The imagery of dandelions on steroids is quite breath-taking in a comical way as the creative mind of Jean-Dominique takes flight to alight in the crystal clear aquamarine waters of Martinique to swim untethered by time or space. To be able to indulge in one's sexual fantasies with his mistress Ines complete in all her nakedness. Embracing each other on the wet sand on the beach as the waves roll in and the daylight escapes in the nightscape of undying passion. There is also a surfboard carrying Jean-Dominique as a young man hurtling down the mountains of waves and like quicksilver he is transported to a bull-ring dressed as a matador standing proud before the cheering crowd (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Why is the imagery of Jean-Dominique's fantasies made up of snapshots for the film audience to view and move on "Query, do the small moments to which we surrender ourselves show an infinity for a particular orbit of life?" (Kracauer, 1996, p.303).




The notion to write overcomes all caution as Jean-Dominique decides to collect all the fragments of his struggle with the issues of being in this state of limbo known as 'locked in syndrome'. He has to recall and make sense of his life before it is too late to do so as the weary traveler forever attached to the diving-bell in the nightmarish realms of the ocean of tears and the limitations of the wheelchair in real-time. He decides to approach the publisher with the help of Henriette who asks for someone to transcript his thoughts into a text medium. Jean-Dominique feels even more trapped than ever in the confining space of his diving-bell with the task at hand to write the travel notes of his experiences marooned on the cusp of the horizon with the bony hands of death beckoning him to an unknown head-space. The location for his inspiration was this naval hospital originally set to cater children with tuberculosis and there in the main hall a white marble bust of the Empress Eugenie, wife of of Napoleon 111. In the past many creative people have resided here to entertain such as Nijinski one of the greatest ballet dancers who have ever lived with the ability to leap up into the air and stay suspended twelve feet from the ground was the star attraction of the Ballet Russes. Nowadays this is just a hospice for the dying and the infirm that are ignored by their families, because of the unnerving process of aging. The ongoing visual experience in the film 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' shows "the film artist has traits of imaginative reader or an explorer plodded by insatiable curiosity" (Kracauer, 1996, p.302). The space for inspiration was a vacant terrace overlooking a landscape only limited by the scope of Jean-Dominique's imagination. My favourite landmark was the lighthouse painted with red and white stripes. Jean-Dominique was seeking protection from this guardian of the sea for the castaways left behind on the shore of shadows mostly forgotten. This former editor of the magazine Elle would die as a published author before his elderly father who was also too frail to cope with a son beyond help (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).



The story 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' is an object lesson you should always treasure that special relationship in your life before it is too late to do so which was regrettably not the case for Jean-Dominique Bauby. The last time this son saw his father was to shave him and splash some cologne on his face. His father asks about his reading habits and the reply is 'Count of Monte Cristo' which he intends to rewrite into a modern version for the twentieth century reworking the concept from the feminine viewpoint. It is now the time for the butterfly to savour the delights of the sensual with this banquet-style fantasy indulging exercise to tantalise the senses of just being human. Oysters are the ultimate appetiser to enhance the feelings of this erotic escape for Jean-Dominique from the reality that shows no promise of improvement. Regrettably there will always be the forbidden pleasures of life which are denied to him in real-time such as the touching and inhaling the scent of a lover's skin with the tasting of her lips too precious. It was so easy for Jean-Dominique to discard his long-term relationship too binding with Celine for another woman when there were no marriage vows to break and yet retain the father's attachment with his two children. There was also however the silent anguish of this father never to be able to hold close to his heart his children to show the warmth and depth of his feelings and it was too late to make amends to Celine. To regret later a selfish action that can never be undone is the theme throughout the film 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' with a heavy dose of poetic license because everything is not what seems regarding the two women in real-time. In life some personal issues can never be resolved such as the example of this story based on the life and loves of Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Reference List

- Please bear with me - work in progress -

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Revised
copyright © Marjorie Savill Linthwaite 2010
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