Bringing Out the Interior Life

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The New York Sun

Ray Charles overcame the constraints of blindness to become a music legend. Helen Keller overcame even more to become an author, activist, and lecturer. Christy Brown overcame cerebral palsy to paint and write. These real-life stories are nothing short of extraordinary, seemingly ready-made for powerful biopics that put descriptions such as “inspirational” and “uplifting” squarely between Hollywoodized quotation marks.

To be sure, the triumph-over-adversity story is an age-old tradition in any dramatic form. But the films based on these success stories of the disabled — in this case “Ray,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “My Left Foot” — seemed to create only myths. To a very real degree, they took for granted the quotidian inconveniences and the lonely existences of their protagonists, as if to say that the everyday travails of the disabled mean nothing if those people ultimately do not triumph over their ailments.

The story of the late Jean-Dominique Bauby is different. The once able-bodied editor of French Elle magazine and reputed playboy had it all. But he lost it all, save for his left eye, when a massive stroke befell him in 1995 at age 43. His autobiography, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” — the film adaptation of which, directed by Julian Schnabel, arrives in theaters Friday — isn’t that familiar story about overcoming handicaps. Instead, it offers a valuable perspective of the painful and frustrating interior life of someone suffering the rare condition known as locked-in syndrome. Mr. Schnabel’s film is groundbreaking in its rendering of that interior life.

Once paralyzed, Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) wished to die. He could not bear to see his own reflection in the window, let alone allow his loved ones to see his disfigured face. It was frustrating enough that he could no longer communicate with others. It was utterly humiliating that others had to clean up his excrement. It was thanks only to the selflessness of physical therapists Henriette Durand (Marie-Josée Croze) and Marie Lopez (Olatz Lopez Garmendia), and the patience of stenographer Claude (Anne Consigny), that Bauby learned to express himself again. Bauby composed his memoir literally one letter at a time, by blinking when the correct letter was reached by Claude, who would slowly and repeatedly recite the alphabet. What came flooding out was a life of cherished memories, unfulfilled dreams, and vivid imagination.

Generally, these tales of tortured souls make perfect showcases for the actors who play them, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Jamie Foxx won Oscars for their performances as Brown and Charles, respectively. These showy turns certainly give us an idea of the emotional devastation that comes with disability. But in presenting how these people wallowed in self-pity and lashed out at the world around them, these biographical films willfully indulge in the turbulent episodes of their lives to mine dramatic scenes.

Bauby’s condition did not allow Mr. Amalric any such volatile scenes. Instead, there are a few genuine moments in “Diving Bell,” as when the bedridden author recognizes how he has hurt the people who have dutifully remained by his side. His realization wasn’t a comment on his anguished existence, but on the magnitude of humanity and compassion all around him, and though it probably won’t win any Oscars, it inspires and uplifts in an unexpected way that makes viewers believe that joie de vivre is less a cliché than something too often taken for granted.

For a review of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” please see

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