For class this week I watched the French film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) by Julian Schnabel. Based on the memoirs of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the film chronicles the life of a man who suffers a massive stroke and is then left paralyzed, unable to move anything except his left eye. In the film, Jean-Do (as he is called by friends and doctors alike) suffers from “Locked-In Syndrome,” meaning that his mind remains conscious and fully functional but that his body is unable to respond to the external world. Blinking is his only form of communication.
In my previous post, I briefly mentioned that screenwriters lack access to the interior when crafting a narrative, and must learn to externalize a story for film. How then does a writer go about the task of telling the story of someone whose entire world is interior?
The film shows the period in Jean-Do’s life beginning from when the stroke occurred and ending upon the publication of his memoirs (completed with the assistance of a partner to interpret his blinks and record his words). The interior nature of this story is represented visually by the fact that we remain in Jean-Do’s head for the entirety of the film. The camera exists as a stand-in for Jean-Do’s eye and all action is directed toward it. Jean-Do states early on that his imagination and memory are the only things that allow him to escape his “imprisonment,” which he characterizes as his “diving bell.” As such, they become the only exit routes for the viewer as well.
The hospital scenes are punctuated by detailed flashbacks as Jean-Do recalls the days before his accident with the people he cared for in his life. The chronological narrative loses itself in a non-linear stream of consciousness, drifting from a weekend trip to Lourdes immediately to a hospital session with nurses who encourage him to make the “L” sound once more. This sort of free drifting approach to representing the mind and its thoughts is effective in capturing the world of someone whose last treasure is his memory.
Jean-Do’s deeper and more complex thoughts come to us in voice-over, contrasted against the condensed and simplified sentences he communicates to his nurse, Sandrine. The tension between these two modes of expression reinforces the viewer’s passivity as we watch the current story unfold through Jean-Do’s eye. At times it is frustrating but like our protagonist we can do nothing. Instead, the patience and serenity with which Jean-Do approaches his life’s situation comes to the forefront, and for that we admire him.
What is interesting about the script (my copy is an English version), is that the screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, writes the thoughts that make up Jean-Do’s several monologues initially as dialogues with Sandrine. The directions indicate that we hear two voices speaking to each other in a way that is likely meant to remove us from the reality of the story and instead capture the way in which Jean-Do begins to accept his new world in the place of his old one. Communicating through blinks starts to come easier to him, almost as if, suggests the text, he were speaking the way he used to do.
Instead, in the film version, the director chooses to remove us from this reality by placing it in the background. As Jean-Do thinks his thoughts, his letter-based dialogue with Sandrine continues in the distance in a way that calls attention to the reality of his condition but still allows us to escape with him.
When I first started watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly I was reminded most strongly of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, a recent film with similar constraints that has gained notoriety within the past few months. The film depicts the ordeal of Aron Ralson who is forced to resort to drastic measures after being trapped in a narrow rock crevice for, presumably, 127 hours. Both films feature characters whose normal modes of contact with the external world have been cut off and as a result, both must retreat inward and seek comfort in the power of memory.
The tones are certainly different—127 Hours taking a more claustrophobic approach to being trapped by one’s body in contrast to Diving Bell’s more elegant and peaceful mood. Boyle finds a way to externalize Aron’s thoughts for the audience in a variety of ways, including a moment where Aron acts opposite himself in a segment of a morning talk show. The camcorder, memories, and dream fantasies are our window into Aron’s head, and his window out.
Like Diving Bell, Boyle’s screenplay for 127 contains much more conversation (or soliloquizing, rather) than what exists in the final film. However, unlike in Diving Bell where the thoughts that are expressed in the script are converted into voice-over narration in the final cut, these thoughts are removed completely in 127. There is no voice-over. Instead, through the multiple shot-reverse-shot editing sequences, Boyle allows the thoughts of the viewer to assume the absence of Aron’s own vocalized thoughts. Much like exposition, we are given a few facts and we must make the logical connections. The result of this is the synthesis of viewer and character that Diving Bell achieved through its use of subjective camera.
Both films attempt to tackle the challenge of trying to express the interior nature of the mind. This should be a familiar task for all of us. Each day when we communicate with others we find ways to externalize our internal thoughts. But as many of us know, sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes we can’t express ourselves the way want to because words can only go so far. The same is true of the language of film. The eternal struggle of the screenwriter is one that extends beyond the realm of storytelling and one that can paradoxically never be solved. We only have access one viewpoint and whenever we try to change our perspective, certain aspects are invariably lost in translation. Interestingly, this same phenomenon is reflected in the construction of the film. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly comes to me by way of the memoir of the same name which was then adapted into a script, made into a film, and then subtitled in English. Likewise, 127 Hours is adapted from Aron Ralston’s aptly titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place in which he describes his first hand account of the experience (pun not intended, I promise). The question how to occupy mind of another lives on, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and 127 Hours do an effective job of showing us how to get close.