Jean-Dominique Bauby, Jean-Do to his friends, was the editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine, when he suffered a catastrophic stroke in December 1995 at the age of just 43. Bauby, described by the mother of his children as “intelligent, witty and stylish, and a consummate bon viveur”, was out driving when he was suddenly struck down. He slipped into a coma at the hospital and was under for three weeks before coming round. When he did regain consciousness, Bauby was not able to move a muscle, save for his left eye and left eyelid. The neurologists diagnosed ‘Locked-in-Syndrome’, a rare condition in which the brain functions normally while the body becomes a paralysed prison. Bauby was unable to talk, breathe, or even swallow on his own. Despite this overwhelming disability, Bauby’s spirit seems to have won through. A speech therapist, at the hospital in Berck, developed a system of communication with him by reciting a special alphabet, ordered by frequency of use, and watching for him to blink his acknowledgment of the correct letter. In this way he communicated by blinking letter by letter. Incredibly, it was by’speaking’ in this fashion that Bauby was able to to dictate his personal memoir to Claude Mendibil, a secretary sent to him by a publisher. Mendibil spent three hours six days a week taking dictation and it took some 200,000 blinks of his eye to complete.
The evocative title of the book, that translates as “The Diving Bell And The Butterfly”, springs from Bauby’s feeling that his body was a submerged, weighted down prison, impossible to move, but his imagination and memory were still free and as light as a butterfly’s wings: “My cocoon becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.” he wrote.
Tragically, Bauby died only a couple of days after the publication of his memoir in France in 1997, but, it was from this bestselling autobiography that the french movie The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was adapted by the acclaimed British playwright Ronald Harwood. The movie opens as Bauby regains consciousness and it is unconventionally shot from the haunting and, quite frankly, disturbing viewpoint of the man himself. The most uncomfortable moment is when the doctors sew Bauby’s useless right eye shut. This scene is filmed from the inside and we are able to see the stitches going in and the darkness folding in as though it is our own eye. We, the audience, hear Jean-Do’s thoughts throughout the film and this adds eerily to the dramatic effect. It is wonderfully done and works effectively to build the viewer’s empathy for this bright and eloquent journalist, now held hostage by his own body. I cannot claim to have enjoyed the film because I found it quite terrifying to experience this, even at a distance. The film was, however, moving, elegant, dark and moody and I highly recommend it. The only issue I have is that there is so much controversy surrounding the truth behind the movie. There is a difference of opinion between Sylvie de la Rochefoucauld, mother of Bauby’s two children and Florence Ben Sadoun, Bauby’s girlfriend at the time of his illness, about exactly who was by his side daily in the hospital. I have read many articles ( see the links on the ladies names) that take both sides of the story and have decided that I will need to read the autobiography itself to have a better idea of Bauby’s thoughts at the end of his life.