Locked In


While watching The Diving Bell and the Butterfly it came home to me more clearly than ever that literature strains to do what cinema achieves easily: capture the sheer, palpable physicality of the world. Literature’s real victories are won precisely where film huffs and puffs: the inner world of thought.

Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir is one of the most soul-stirring books ever written. A stroke left the forty-three-year-old editor of the French fashion magazine Elle a prisoner within his own body, a victim of locked-in syndrome, completely unable to move or talk, though his vision, hearing, and thinking remained. To allow him to communicate, his therapist employed a system in which she recited the alphabet until Bauby blinked his selection of a letter, with two blinks signaling the end of a sentence. Thus, he dictated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a tour of his condition, a record of his thoughts, a tribute to his loved ones and caregivers, a scrapbook of his past, and—if any book has ever deserved the encomium—a tribute to the human spirit. The butterfly of Bauby’s spirit refused to be trapped by the diving bell of his body.

The first half-hour of Julian Schnabel’s 110-minute adaptation is powerful and unique, even more so than the opening pages of the memoir, for it sets before us Bauby’s desperate physical condition with a directness no work of literature...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.