Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

(Le scaphandre et le papillon, France, 2007)

For some years now I’ve kept a few stories in my head, horror stories that prove to me that sometimes it is much, much better not to survive.

There was the guy who was burning trash in a barrel and, when the fire was getting out of hand, threw a bucket of water on it, only it turned out to be a bucket of gasoline. He survived. 80% third degree burns. No skin except on his back. Both feet amputated, and most of his hands. And that’s the good part. No external ears, no eyes, no nose, no lips. I saw a picture of him after the doctors had finally done all they could add to his misery. Basically, he makes Freddy Krueger look like Robert Redford. Now he goes around to schools, teaching diversity (or his wife does since he can’t speak, as he hasn’t much of a tongue left, he can only sit there and listen to the children’s reactions to him). No, thank you.

Then there was the teenage girl enjoying herself with a bunch of friends. A boy was fooling around with his father’s unloaded shotgun. The unloaded shotgun went off, blasting into the side of her face. (Don’t you just love firearms?) She survived. I always wondered what the paramedic who first treated her thought when he realized he was saving the life of a girl who now had no face at all. Did he hesitate for a moment? Did the doctors in the ER wonder if they were doing the right thing when they tied off the blood vessels, sewed up the ruin, and contemplated their work? Because everything from her eyebrows to her chin was … gone. Scooped out and vaporized. I’ve never seen a picture of her. I doubt that she ever goes out in public. I sure wouldn’t. I would try to trick someone into taking me up to a high place, where I would try to fly. Maybe she leads a rewarding spiritual life. Who knows? But not me, no thank you very much.

And maybe I could fly. Worth a try.

I don’t know who is worse off, those two or the fellow in this movie, who can only move his left eyelid. At least this guy can’t feel pain, like the burn victim. It’s based on a true story, and the real man wrote an entire book by blinking when someone said the correct letter of the alphabet. I applaud him for that. (But what else did he have to do?) This film does an excellent job of showing what it would be like, with the first third or so filmed almost entirely from his severely limited point of view. We hear his internal dialogue, and his horror when he realizes no one else can hear him. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Direction and Cinematography, and deserved the nominations. It does not try to be “inspiring,” merely telling the story, the ups and the downs, and lets you decide.

It’s an easy call for me. No thank you. My favorite story about someone totally paralyzed is Whose Life is it Anyway? (filmed starring Richard Dreyfuss, and staged on Broadway with Mary Tyler Moore), where the quadriplegic argues in favor of being allowed to take his own life. Some reviewers felt conflicted about that question. Not me. Give me the gas, the needle, the .45 slug. Whatever. Don’t do me any more favors, okay?