Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle, womanizer, general jerk, has a stroke. Suddenly, his playboy life is gone and he’s trapped in an ocean-side rehabilitation center, trapped indeed in his own body — the only part of which capable of movement is a single eyelid. The first section of the movie we experience things from his point of view, literally seeing his world through the vignette of a blinking eyeball. Using his blinks, he can communicate, albeit slowly, with the nursing staff and visitors.
|What an actual diving bell looks like (courtesy Wikipedia)|
He feels as if he is trapped in a diving suit (not a diving bell) but his thoughts are free to flutter anywhere (like a butterfly).
Mostly, we flashback to episodes of his ambulatory life where he treats poorly his father, his girlfriend and an acquaintance on a plane. The paralyzed version of his personality is no less odious. He rejects the faithful mother of his children for his faithless mistress. (This is the film’s best scene, carried by a tremendous performance by Emmanuelle Seigner.)
Don’t be fooled by those who say The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is life-affirming. Despite the inspiring notion that Jean-Dom soldiered on and composed a slim memoir using only eye-blinks, the film itself seems to view life as a rather cruel joke. As soon as he is truly adjusted to life inside the diving suit, pneumonia overtakes him.
To say that screenwriter Ronald Harwood and director Julian Schnabel had a moral or ironic or life-affirming message in mind I think overstates the clarity of their intentions. The reason particular episodes are dramatized seems as random as the wandering thoughts of the protagonist. I found much of the movie as frustrating and boring as actually being stuck in a hospital bed. It’s one thing to put the audience in a character’s shoes. It’s another punish them for the sins of the character.