The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Monday, April 22
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1hr 52mins // directed by:Julian Schnabel // featuring:Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner

Artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) won the Best Director award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for this fiercely beautiful, quietly moving adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s remarkable memoir.

In 1995, at age 43, Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), the successful and charismatic editor-in-chief of Elle France, suffered a massive stroke that left him with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome.  Although his mind remained intact, he was unable to speak or move any part of his body, except for his left eye.  With the help of a speech therapist, he learned to communicate by blinking that eye to signify letters of the alphabet. Blink by blink, letter by letter, word by word, he dictated his memoir.

Schnabel, working from a script by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), immerses us in Bauby’s world.  The beginning of the film is told entirely from Bauby’s point of view.  We see what he sees, the camera lens acting as his left eye, the images blurry and out of focus as he emerges from a coma.  We hear, through voiceover, the thoughts that exist in his mind but that he is unable to speak.  Gradually, the camera shifts away from Bauby’s limited gaze.  As the film progresses, scenes of Bauby’s life in the hospital, including the painstaking way he composes his book, flow seamlessly into flashbacks and flights of fantasy, gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln).

Though trapped in his body, Bauby is still able to escape his “diving bell” by letting his imagination take flight like a butterfly. “Here is the life force at its most insistent, lashing out against fate with stubborn resolve,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review. “And also with lust, hunger, humor and all of the other notes that this man once played so easily.”  

About the Speaker

Frank Guenther, a professor in the Departments of Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences and Biomedical Engineering at Boston University, introduces this latest installment of Science on Screen.  Dr. Guenther uses brain imaging and computational modeling to represent the brain networks involved in speech, and develops brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that can restore speech and other capabilities to patients with locked-in syndrome.  BMIs have produced astonishing laboratory demonstrations of locked-in patients controlling computers, speech synthesizers, and robotic arms using only their thoughts. Clinical trials are ongoing for several BMIs, promising a much more normal life for those with locked-in syndrome as these devices become widely available.