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Betrayals of the Brain

Josie Klein
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

Imagine being trapped. Not in a kidnapper’s basement, or on a lonely island, but trapped inside your mind, unable to control what you want to do. Imagine you are forced to forget cheerful memories or become unable to speak or move. Imagine having a neurological disease, such as Alzheimer’s or Locked-in Syndrome, that takes your life away from you. Movies such as Still Alice and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly leave us with information that makes imagining these scenarios a little less difficult. In Julian Schnabel’s and Miramax’s film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), actor Mathieu Amalric plays the role of Jean-Dominque Bauby, a father and Elle magazine editor who develops locked-in syndrome from a stroke, leaving his entire body paralyzed except for one of his eyes. In 2015, directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland worked with Sony Pictures Classics to put together Still Alice, a movie in which Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) and her family struggle with the life changes caused by Alice’s recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Although both productions are entertaining and pull the heartstrings of viewers, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly more effectively portrays the struggles of the diseased while simultaneously educating the public on the neurological disease.     


Picture being unable to move and communicate with your friends, children, and the people you love. That is exactly what Jean-Dominique Bauby woke up to in a hospital one day after having a stroke (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, awakening in hospital scene). Jean-Dominique Bauby clearly struggles to adapt to his new life as a person who is “locked-in” their own body. Mathieu Amalric gives a shivering performance of Mr. Bauby as his character comes to realize that he is completely paralyzed, and nobody can hear him. Bauby’s internal monologue becomes an important piece in the movie, as it gives the audience something to grasp onto and use to identify with Mr. Bauby. Amalric’s internal monologue not only makes the audience empathize with Bauby, but it makes them feel the frustration, confusion, and anger that Jean-Dominique must have felt in this situation. Jean-Dominique “speaks” with his doctors and becomes increasingly frustrated when they say he isn’t communicating (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Bauby is informed of condition scene). Feeling the frustration and confusion of Bauby, he guides the audience to sympathize with the character.

In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffers from a stroke which causes an injury to his brainstem and leaves him paralyzed with a functioning brain. His overwhelming journey includes learning that he can’t speak or move, being taken care of like an incapable child, watching his own eye become stitched shut, and through a frustrating process, learning how to communicate with only a blink of an eye. Although this journey is distressful, he becomes a published author with the help of Claude Mendibil (Anne Consigny). Together they write a book: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The book took them months to write, as Claude continually reads him the letters of the alphabet waiting for him to tell her which letters to use (Schnabel, 2007). His determination to publish a book, despite his disability, is inspirational and brings about feelings of accomplishment to viewers.


The name of the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly starts an interesting conversation. Both objects seem completely unrelated, however, while watching the movie the audience becomes aware that both of these items describe Jean-Dominique Bauby. He sees himself and his condition as a weight, dragging himself and the people he loves down into the ocean (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, scuba diver scenes). He views himself as a problem that his family has to put up with and at one point tells his speech therapist that he wants to die. However, the people who care about him see him as a beautiful uplifting butterfly that gives them hope. He is still looked up to by his family, Claude, and his speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze). They are all shocked by the progress and determination he has to adapt to his unfortunate situation (Schnabel, 2007).


In Still Alice, another movie portraying the struggles of a neurological disease, Alice discovers she has Alzheimer’s disease. Her dementia worsens to the point where she cannot remember where the bathroom is and goes in her pants. Her husband (Alec Baldwin) finds her crying downstairs in distress (Still Alice, bathroom scene). The embarrassment she feels is apparent by her breakdown, and it is clear that her husband is in terrible pain having to watch his wife become someone incapable of doing simple, everyday tasks.


In Still Alice, Alice begins to forget harmless things such as a few words in her speech and when family gatherings were. Her condition escalates to forgetting her daily run route, people she has met, and the questions she has asked. She even momentarily forgets her own daughter (Glatzer and Westmoreland, 2015). Her family painfully watches her lose her abilities and sense of self. Alice becomes a shell of the woman she once was, unable to continue her daily runs, her job, and even her motor functions. The accelerating rate at which Alice loses her memory is astounding and heart wrenching.


Julianne Moore does a sensational job of playing Alice’s character. Her performance in the suicide scene makes viewers shudder in disbelief. In this scene, Alice accidentally opens the folder she has labeled butterfly. This folder contains a video that she made for when she can no longer remember the things she finds are most important to her, such as her children’s names. The fact that she makes a video telling herself to commit suicide will brings tears to anyone’s eyes. This scene seamlessly combines sadness and suspense by having Alice watch the suicide video numerous times because she forgets what she was trying to accomplish (Still Alice, attempted suicide scene). This scene causes the audience to contemplate what they would do in Alice’s situation. Would you want to carry on and possibly put your family through the pain of watching you slip away? Would you feel embarrassed about the disease and not want to live life with dementia?


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Still Alice are both magnificent films that are perfect for anyone who is looking for a grievous drama. If you are looking to step into someone else’s shoes, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a phenomenal option. Seeing the world from Jean-Dominique Bauby’s point of view is a fantastic way to get the audience to sympathize and “experience” locked-in syndrome. While Still Alice doesn’t give the audience the feeling of being in her shoes, the movie brings about strong feelings of empathy. Watching Alice’s struggles and watching her family become distressed over her lack of memory is agonizing. Both the inspirational The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and the heartbreaking Still Alice are must-sees. Although The Diving Bell and the Butterfly presented more information on the featured disease and helped the audience “feel” what it would be like to have locked-in syndrome, the storyline of Still Alice was quicker paced and therefore more engaging.



Glatzer, R. & Westmoreland, W. (Directors). (2015). Still Alice [Motion Picture]. New York City, NY: Sony Picture Classics

Schnabel, J. (Director). (2007). The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [DVD]. Los Angeles, CA: Miramax Films

Staff!, C. B., 1998, T. B., 30 great scenes in Rotten movies, & Movies and shows to binge now. (n.d.). Still Alice. Retrieved from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/still_alice/

Staff!, C. B., 1998, T. B., 30 great scenes in Rotten movies, & Movies and shows to binge now. (n.d.). The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Retrieved from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_diving_bell_and_the_butterfly_2007/


The first thing I did to complete this paper was read the rubric and highlight the main points that I needed to include in my essay. After this I created a thesis statement and built my movie review outline off of the thesis. Then I wrote my review starting with the introduction and ending with the conclusion. After writing it, I read through the essay to make sure I had everything I wanted in it. Next, I took my essay to the writing center where I read aloud my essay. Reading the essay out load helped me to find any awkward sentences. The tutor helped me expand my ideas and fix some of the sentence structures in the essay. I think going to the writing center helped me a lot because I was able to understand the essay from another’s point of view. Reading my essay out loud helped me so I will continue that process with future essays. I felt a little rushed toward the end of the essay, so I will change my timeline for writing the essay next time. I will also complete a more detailed outline in the beginning to speed up the writing process.


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