If you’re looking for a film that will make you feel a little better about your own life, try either of these. They’ll also make you feel better about the “human spirit” and other noble thoughts, but basically, you will realize that all the crap you complain about every day really is just crap and that you should take a chill pill and try to realize how good things really are. Both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and My Left Foot, which preceded it by almost two decades, feature lead characters who are suffering through horrific physical challenges which make it nearly impossible for them to communicate, but because they are just as alive inside their brains as any of us and maybe more so, they rise above their fear, pain, and sadness to communicate anyway. In the end, in both films, it turns out to be less about what they say than the fact that they said anything at all that is so inspirational.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a French film (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) about Jean-Dominique Bauby who, in 1995, when he was 43 and the editor of the French Elle, suffered a stroke. It left him unable to speak, barely able to move, and the victim of a rare condition which is known as “Locked-In Syndrome.” The thing is, it didn’t affect his mind at all. He remained as alert as he’d ever been. At the risk of being a smart-ass about such a depressing and awful situation, this film could have been called My Left Eye because that’s the only part of Bauby’s body that he could control. He used his left eyelid and communicated by blinking. He even wrote a memoir by working with an assistant using a special alphabet which put the letters in the order of their frequency. You might well ask how it’s possible to make a film about this, but screenwriter Ronald Harwood and director Julian Schnabel have managed to do a thrilling job of it, mostly by playing on our natural empathy, and contrasting the life and times Bauby lived before the event with the interior monologue of his illness.
The Defending Champion
As I recall it now, it wasn’t easy to watch My Left Foot, which is the story of Irishman Christy Brown — the 9th of 22 children — who was born with cerebral palsy and spent his life trapped in a body that was twisted and paralyzed. At best, Brown could speak in gutteral words that only his mother could translate, but he had a left foot that worked. He used that foot to express his thoughts as a writer and his art as a painter. There is absolutely nothing sentimental about this telling. Two actors play Brown: Hugh O’Conor handles it through his youth, and Daniel Day-Lewis brought his adulthood to life. Growing up in Dublin was no picnic. His family had no money, and life was hard and working class, but Christy Brown probably learned his resiliance there. He simply wasn’t treated special, because no one could afford to do that. This is no Helen Keller story, though, as Brown was a hard-drinking, bawdy Irishman through-and-through. He just happened to be stuck inside a body that was in full-revolt.
Both Christy Brown’s My Left Foot and Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly started as books and made the transition to screen. I haven’t read them, and I can’t judge who the better writer was, and certainly can’t comment on how they made the leap to film.
Although both films find a place in their film-present to launch flashbacks, as directed by Jim Sheridan and written by Sheridan and Shane Connaughton, My Left Foot is much more autobiographical. It’s about Christy Brown growing up into the man he became and dealing with his adversity. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is much more experiential, thrusting the audience into a sense of Bauby’s dread and anguish, almost as if we have suffered the stroke. There is a scene, early on, where Bauby’s right eye has to be sewed shut in order to save it, and he is powerless to express his fear and rage. I doubt even Saw has a more authentic moment of torture and disfigurement. It felt like my eye had the the needle dragging the thread through it.
There is a lyrical quality to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and a gritty quality to My Left Foot. The former could happen to any of us at any time, as it did Bauby. The latter happened to someone else, and we feel awful, but we realize that because we were not born with cerebral palsy that, at least, this is one affliction that we have evaded.
As far as performances go, however, you can’t touch Daniel Day-Lewis. My Left Foot is probably the film that put him on the map, at least the one that was seen and talked about, mostly because of his absolute descent into the physical jail that Brown lived in. Mathieu Amalric plays Bauby wonderfully, but the performance that seems to count in his predicament belongs to the cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who takes us inside Bauby’s head, into his still body and sole blinking eye.
It’s probably true that if you are a serious film buff or a student of film and you haven’t seen My Left Foot that it needs to be on your list. But The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an experience that transcends being a great film. It’s a mid-course correction for your life, a chance to see things through a radical POV, and to make a difference while you still can. I gasped, I cried, I flinched and I… felt. Days after seeing it, I can’t get it out of my head. I appreciate greatly that I can write this to you and the speed I’m typing rather than blinking it out one letter at a time. I’m not sure I will ever 100% see life quite the way I saw it before the film. See The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and then call the people you love, do something you’ve always wanted to do, and count your blessings.