Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly;

I as not often moved these days to the extent of my being is churned, rocked, turned inside out. This afternoon I experienced an amazing true story. That of Jean-Dominique Bauby the editor of Elle Magazine who had a severe stroke at the age of 42 which left him paralysed and unable to speak. Such conditions of total imprisonment within the body and where everything else is functioning including hearing, sight and mental awareness, is rare. The film is based on a memoir which he painstakingly dictated by blinking his eye while his secretary went through a version of the alphabet in the order of the most commonly used words in the French language.

The book is called Le scaphandre et le papillon and the film although made by North Americans was shot and recorded in the France and in the French language, titled the Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Monsieur Bauby was a highly regarded journalist who was separated from his wife but kept in touch with his young children and had a loving relationship with another woman. He loved good food and fast cars and moved in the best of French society. He was taking his son out when he had the stroke which is a traumatic life affecting event for anyone.

I was at a cricket match when my mother in law had her first stoke and I was with her when she had the more debilitating second. I only learnt afterwards about the stroke which my care mother had and where she was able to respond to speech therapy as did my mother in law in the first instance but lost coherent speech following the second. I was also with my mother for most of her last days when she became immobile and lost the power of speech although not to communicate. I also spent my first years in the same house as an aunt who became deaf, dumb, blind and immobile and was evacuated with her travelling by car and ambulance to North Yorkshire to the home of another sister at the Catterick Army barracks.

These experiences made watching this film exceptionally difficult added to which is also aroused my own fears about the process of dying and it is noteworthy that what drove the visual artist and film Director by Julian Schnabel to make the film is that he was much influenced by his father who feared death and who Julian had hoped to have helped him to cope better than he was able to do so. He says it has helped him to face the prospect of death better.

Being with someone who has had a stroke or becomes paralysed and without speech affects how one views life, and views death and this is the core of the film, someone who outwardly has died but inwardly is the same.

The film is brilliantly constructed from the viewpoint of Jean Dominque, commencing with regaining consciousness after twenty days in a coma and learning the reality of his predicament. Understandably he finds talk communication and a restricting recovery difficult to accept and considers death the most desirable option at first. The film becomes a succession of heart wrenching moments. The willingness of his former wife to visit and his unwillingness to see his children and then their visit after he is able to use a wheel chair and is taken with them to beach; the inability of his girl friend to visit but wanting to have him back as he was is matched by his wanting to be with her; his father has become restricted to his flat and attempts to communicate by telephone. There are flashback scenes which are integral with the contemporary involvements and with his previous life and at the hospital.

By one of those quirks of fate I spent two weeks one summer at Berck Sur Mer in Normandy hiring a house with the hospital dominating one end of the beach resort. Filming on site meant they were able to use the same facilities, wards and rooms, water therapy and physiotherapy as had been experienced by Jean Dominique. The film chronicles the struggle to start and maintain the treatment designed to enable two way communication and some movement and then the gradual switch over to engagement which sadly came to a halt when he contracts pneumonia. Three people in the film are essential to this recovery, his former wife, the speech therapist and the imported secretary. There is a visit from a man who was kept prisoner in a darkened room in Beirut for over four years who comes to reveal that the only thing that kept him going was his sense of humanity separating him from his captors and the starkness and humiliation of the physical conditions.
However there has been major controversy because friends are concerned that the film significantly distorts the truth of the relationship with his former wife and his girl friend. The film portrays his wife as someone who visited every day but according to Wikipedia this was only included after Silvie de la Rochefoucauld, the former wife threatened a law suit. In fact it is said this girl friend did visit every day although it is accepted that his wife and children did visit on father’s day and they had a wonderful day at the beach. Bauby died in the arms of his girl friend while former wife was with her new boyfriend, rock Journalist Phillipe Manoeurve, in the United States when he died. Another friend was very concerned at how the girl friend is portrayed stating that she did not want to be in the film but the impression given about her is false and hurtful. Silvie also complained that the film was the construct of the filmmakers and not because of her insistence. The brilliant Max Von Sydow plays the father and Mathiue Amalric Monsieur Bauby. The film was released in 2007 and named as one of top ten for the year by 30 US papers and journals including 8 who said it was the best. The film won the Cannes Best Director Prize and a Golden Globe for best foreign language film as well as a Bafta for best adapted screen play. It also won several other awards in North America and had four Oscar Nominations.

The day commenced with official reception and press conference for President Obama in Strasbourg for the Nato summit meeting. The occasion marked the return of France as full political member of Nato which means that the county will accept the control and management by Nato appointed staff when French forces are deployed. This is potentially as an historic moment as the economic summit of the previous two days, This is likely to make the deployment of additional forces in Afghanistan more acceptable to the French Public although the US president together with British and French politicians will be seeking a great involvement from their other allies in the front line fighting. However they will all be finding if difficult to agree to stay let alone increase fighting forces after the news that the Afghan head of state had signed a new law, agreed in order to win the forthcoming Presidential election, that men would have the right to determine when and how they have sex with their wives, including forced sex and would also be able to control when their wives could go out from their homes and presumably this would apply to their daughters. It is welcome that the Nato commander in Afghanistan has made public concern about the continuing deployment and loss of life of Nato forces if this law is enacted. However this should not be an excuse for removing forces given the instability of the Afghanistan. The latest news is that the Presidential hopes, and those of the UK have not been realised. No we wont, says one headline.

My memory of Ballykissangel has been limited but I had thought that a love relationship had developed between the priest and Assumpta the manager of Fitzgerald’s. When the priest goes to a retreat and Assumpta marries and goes off to run a bar in Dublin I thought I was mistaken. In the previous episode Assumpta is back the marriage to he failed and the priest returns from his retreat and it is not long before they reveal their feelings to each other and the priest decides to leave the church. However the programme designers have a solution and Assumpta is electrocuted trying to fix her antiquated control box. The final part of the story is where the main characters are caught by the local policeman in a lock in after legal drinking hours at Fitzgerald’s. The case is defended on the grounds that it was a private party and that the group had met to discuss a Chinese cooking competition for charity and had drunk from cans previously bought at he local store. The death of Assumpta also paves the way or the priest to leave the series.

Friday April 3rd was a day of powerful experiences but also much joy. About that next.

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