There is a scene in the middle of this film that captures the essence of disability. The central character is immobilized on a bench while a fly perches on his nose. He cannot swat it nor can he tell anyone else to bat it away. Finally, it flies away and there is a sense of relief. The insect is a little irritant, yet it looms large in the face of an absolute inability to dismiss it.
When I turned 60, I began to realize that I, too, could not always rid myself of bodily pain or discomfort. It takes time and mental effort to come to terms with a changing body. I experienced little aches and pains, my daily run became more challenging, and I knew that I could no longer be casual about my health. A sense of mortality became present in my life.
This sense of mortality can paralyze someone or spur him on to making every day count, by savoring the moment and appreciating the beauty of everyday miracles. The roadmap is unclear. It is not comforting to know that one is no longer in control of his body. This difficult and painful epiphany is at the heart of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
The film’s opening titles are placed against a backdrop of medical x-rays, foreshadowing the serious medical condition of Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle magazine. As he wakes up from a coma, we see things from his perspective. Everything is in and then out of focus. He tries to talk to doctors and nurses, and we share his frustration and disappointment when he realizes that no one hears him. The doctor informs him that he has a rare condition called “locked-in syndrome,” which prevents him from moving anything other than one of his eyes. This ability to blink becomes Jean-Dominique’s way to communicate with the outside world.
Realizing that he is unable to communicate to family, he profoundly regrets some of his past. To the mother of his three children whom he never married, he thinks: “I can never make amends.” To the friend who spent many years in a foreign prison and who calls him when he is released, he wonders, “Why didn’t I call him back?”
Slowly, Jean-Do begins to understand that, in spite of his paralysis, he can still live in his imagination and in his memory, two parts of his life that are free and unrestricted by physical disability.
All of us have seen handicapped people, but the inner struggle that goes on inside their minds is largely unknown to us. We can sympathize, but we cannot really understand the overwhelming emotional darkness and isolation of one who lives daily with physical challenges. Now, through this film, we get a glimmer of understanding about life lived with physical limitations. Furthermore, it reminds us of the blessings Jews say every morning in which they thank God for the fact that each part of the body is working. We thank God that we can see, that we can walk, that we can go to the bathroom and relieve ourselves. No aspect of our physical life is to be taken for granted.
When a dear friend of mine would be asked how he was doing, he always responded, “Thank God, fantastic.” He did this because he truly felt thankful for the everyday miracles with which he was blessed. Watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly will make you appreciate life more. Do the math and count your blessings.