Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a really cool and innovative movie. Its primary filmic P.O.V. is that of the protagonist, Jean-Do, who is paralyzed from head to toe such that he cannot express himself in any way other than blinking. So, the camera represents his perspective, and we see what he sees — doctors, nurses, physical therapists, friends, wife, children and mistress all peering at his unresponsive face. That’s about 2/3 of the movie; it also includes more usual scenes from his life before his paralysis. It’s a very beautiful movie, “painterly,” maybe, filled with gorgeous, dreamy scenes of cliffs falling into the sea, light and ocean; it makes you realize how impoverished and conventional most cinematography is.

My one little observation about the movie otherwise is that it would be a great film to show as accompaniment for German media theorist Freidrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800-1900. It’s an alphabetized movie all about the acquisition of the alphabet and language as a deeply eroticized process. Quite a lot of it consists simply of shots of Jean-Do’s speech therapist (pictured above) reciting the alphabet over and over again. Jean-Do blinks once for ‘yes’, meaning in this context, “that letter.” Two blinks means no. (And by the way, I realized that that Los Campesinos! song “Sweet Dreams Sweet Cheeks,” with its line “one blink for yes, two blinks for no,” is a reference to this movie/book). Eventually they get a word, a sentence, and so on. He gradually writes his memoir, on which the movie is based.

There’s one interestingly awkward effect of the French/English language difference: we get these scenes where he is trying to spell, say, “death.” So, it’s MORTE, but the subtitles represent this as “D, E, A, T, H,” because the tension in the scene requires us to play hangman and slowly guess what word is he trying to say. It’s disconcerting to hear her say “M”? and have it translated as “D?”

Schnabel admits in a DVD commentary that the movie recalls Fellini’s 8 1/2 in its depiction of the protagonist surrounded by a kind of (unattainable) fantasy harem of women, his various lovers and the therapists. The movie is a rapturous male fantasy about infantile language acquisition, in a position of absolute helplessness, from “the Mother’s Mouth.” Jean-Do can’t move, can’t touch, can only sink deeply into the process of spelling/writing by listening to beautiful women recite the alphabet, staring at their mouths and lips as they wait for his single blink of response. All eroticism has to be projected into this single action and relationship.