When I was in high school, my English teacher had us read Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” and write an essay outlining how we would react to that society, a society where everyone was equal because anyone above average was artificially handicapped. Ballerinas danced with weights and face masks so they were no more graceful or beautiful than anyone else. News anchors had speech impediments. Intelligent people were equipped with a transmitter that sent sharp noises into their brains to scatter their thoughts. The title character is a 14-year-old genius and athlete who rejects his handicapping and rescues a ballerina from hers. True to bizarre Vonnegut form, though, the story doesn’t end in triumph.
Our teacher singled my essay out, not because it was superior to the rest, but because it was unique from the rest. Each of us in our International Baccalaureate class assumed we’d have the mental handicap foisted on us, and everyone but me took on the Harrison Bergeron role. Except they, of course, would be even more clever, and therefore successful in overthrowing the current regime.
I, on the other hand, assumed I could shut up and betray no outward signs of above-average-ness, thereby avoiding the attentions of the Handicapper General. I wrote that as long as I could still think, as long as I could still be me inside my own head, I’d be fine. I had no illusions, then or now, about my revolutionary prospects, and I still think many of my classmates overestimated their own.
Why I read, why I watch TV, why I go to movies, stems from that same value I place on imagination. Inside my head is where I make sense of the chaos of the world. Inside my head I lead many lives, which comes in handy when the external one disappoints. An imagination is what allows us to empathize with others and understand our world. Imagination is, to a large degree, our humanity. As long as I have that, I have everything. Or at least, I can imagine I do.
But “Harrison Bergeron” didn’t make me ponder a life devoid of everything but imagination. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly did, and the idea is unbearably suffocating and unexpectedly liberating at the same time.
Based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, high-living editor of the French Elle who suffered a catastrophic stroke at the age of 43, the film is a hauntingly beautiful portrait of what it means to be human.
The film opens as Bauby awakens in a hospital room stripped of the outward signs of humanity. His “locked-in syndrome” means his mind works perfectly, only it can’t communicate with his body. Paralysed from head to toe, his only window to and from the outside world is through his left eye. Our initial window into the film is exclusively through his point of view, the hazy, limited perspective of a man who can look out but can’t engage with the world around him.
The womanizing Bauby is fortunate to have some highly attractive health care practitioners surrounding him, including one who comes up with a system of communication to free him somewhat from his isolation. Eventually, he dictates his autobiography through the painstaking process of blinking yes to the correct letter when the alphabet is recited to him. Days after the book’s publication, Bauby died.
The movie avoids the sentimental rising-above-adversity cliché to which a lesser screenwriter or director might have succumbed. Ronald Harwood, who wrote the script in English based on that book, and Julian Schnabel, who brought his painterly eye to the film which he directed in French, bring moments of ebullience to a movie that, from its subject matter, should be horrifyingly depressing.
Not that it’s lacking in Kleenex moments. But this movie is more than a tear-jerker, and more than a biography of a unique man in highly unusual circumstances. It manages to also be a profound expression of our common humanity without being pretentious about it.
One of Bauby’s acquaintances, a journalist who had survived four years as a hostage in Beirut after taking Bauby’s place on a hijacked place, recounts how he managed to survive by clinging to his passions, such as his love of wine. Remember your humanity, he advises. That’s how you’ll survive.
Bauby and therefore Schnabel use the metaphor of the diving bell to describe the experience of locked-in syndrome, an impenetrable barrier that separates his body from the world around him. But Bauby’s humanity lies in his imagination and his memories, the butterfly of his metaphoric title. We catch glimpses of him as a child, as a father, as a son, as a lover, in the memories that flit through his consciousness. We also see in his imagination a flirtation with the Empress Eugenie, historic patroness of the hospital where he now resides, and melting glaciers imbued with their own metaphorical meaning.
Despite unrolling largely from the confined point of view of a man locked in his own mind, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly soars on the humour, passion, and meaning that Bauby’s painfully won words bring to the film. The film is a testament to the power of the imagination to be as revolutionary as any coup d’état.