Claustrophobia and entrapment are two dominating sensations in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). The film is told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of Jean-Do, a man suffering from "locked-in" syndrome, the result of a severe stroke in the brain stem that leaves him entirely without control of his body, excepting one eye, which he can blink. With the eye he and a speech therapist devise a means he can use to communicate. She reads out the letters of the alphabet, and when she comes to a letter he wishes to use, he blinks. In this laborious fashion, he composes words, sentences, and then a book. This is his only way to communicate, although he can see the outside world, and observe everything and everyone around him.
One of the amazing achievements of this film is that it doesn't descend into maudlin despair and pity. On the other hand, it doesn't quite achieve what I think it means to—convincing us that through his imagination and capacity for thought Jean-Do can compensate for his physical limitations, freeing himself from the body that entraps him. His plight is never anything but horrible. But through his thoughts, his contemplative abilities, he achieves a kind of accommodation with his situation. This comes as the result of a plea whispered in his ear by a colleague, "Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you'll survive." The film argues that what makes us human is not our physical existence, but our sentient self, our mind. Yet it also demonstrates (perhaps this is not its intention) that without control of the physical dimension, our existence is significantly reduced and minimized.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is told almost entirely from Jean-Do's viewpoint, starting with the moment he awakens in the hospital after his stroke and slowly realizes that he cannot move or speak. We hear his thoughts, and they serve as the narrating voice of the film. The film tracks him as he struggles to deal with his dire situation, undergoes physical therapy, develops a relationship with his speech therapist, is visited by his wife and children, receives a phone call from his mistress (who can't bring herself to visit). The film occasionally departs from this perspective, mainly in flashbacks to Jean-Do's former life as a magazine editor.
In the course of the film we come to know Jean-Do both as he was before the stroke, and as he became afterwards. Mathieu Amalric portrays him. At first I thought all Amalric had to do was appear convincingly inert, but gradually we become aware of the subtle ways he uses facial tone and the movements of the one eye to convey the emotions of his character. His performance is impressive.
It would be wrong to describe The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as depressing, though depressing it is. Instead, it urges us to contemplate Jean-Do's entrapped existence. Director Julian Schnabel succeeds by refusing to sentimentalize his subject, by the use of a method that places the viewer in the locked-in mind of Jean-Do, and that allows us to understand both the limitations and potentialities of his plight.