It’s hard enough to think about revealing all that you’d like about your own personal life in writing a memoir, but in the French film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” magazine editor Jean-Do comes to the realization that he can imagine anything he wants. And he does to survive.
After suffering a massive stroke, he learns that he can’t speak, even though his mind is responding to all the questions from various doctors. As he works with a speech therapist and a psychologist, he begins to make progress. Part of his survival is writing, with the blink of an eye signaling to his therapist to write down the letter that she recites to him in descending order of their use in French. The painstaking process becomes easier, and with the help of a full-time translator, Jean-Do is able to write his memoir, completing it shortly before his death.
After his stroke, which leaves him much like someone in a diving bell, people from his life come to visit him: his former lover and the mother of his children; his current estranged lover; his associate who he once gave up his plane seat for and who wound up a hostage in Lebanon for four years; his children; and – by phone – his father.
As Jean-Do accepts his fate, he begins to appreciate the beauty in life. He recalls a scene with his aging father, who complains about life while his son shaves him; his lover, who refuses to make love on a romantic getaway because she’s trying to focus on her religious piety; his children, who kiss him on the cheek and run around him in circles while he’s confined to a wheelchair on the beach; the mother of his children, who reads to him on the beach while he watches her swimsuit cover-up rustle in the wind to reveal beautiful legs that he is, of course, at a loss to voice his appreciation of.
Yet as he begins to write his inner feelings, his prose helps him express himself in a truly beautiful way. The simplicity of the ocean foam, its searing whiteness almost blinding; the low-slung buildings near the beach that remind him of a western ghost town; the memories of his father and the others in his life that he once took for granted. It’s a powerful reminder of the fragility of life, the preciousness of love, and the twists of fate that come upon us to change us forever.