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How Do They Feel About It? Alice and Jean Do’s Emotional Struggles

Anthony Paul
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

Still Alice (2014), featuring Julianne Moore and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, tells the heartbreaking story of a prominent doctor, Alice, diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease; the film focuses on her mental state as she attempts to reason with and manage her deterioration. She fervently tries to slow or mend her situation both secretly and with the aid of her family. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), starring Mathieu Amalric and directed by Julian Schnabel, depicts a stroke victim John Do from the moment of his awakening from a weeks-long coma, revealing his debilitating loss of speech and body movement. Interestingly, the cinematic theme of his clear train of thought explains the true horrors of this particular affliction. Both of these films offer realistic representations of neurological diseases through the mental anguish the patients portray in the midst of a disease of the mind, the often times similar effects loved ones suffer alongside the individuals, and the unique showcase of hopelessness both films brandish during trying scenes. 

Jean Do awakes from his coma expecting to retain his speech abilities, but he soon realizes that the doctors cannot hear his voice. He can hear all that the doctors say to him, but he then learns that he cannot move his body or speak, essentially trapping his existence in the confines of his thoughts (Julian Schnabel). The inability to do complex tasks, especially concerning that of his unique loss, can mentally strain and emotionally drain stroke patients. They might often exhibit depression and anxiety in the aftermath of their strokes, in harsh attempts to cope with their injuries (Chriki, Bollain, Stern). Viewers experience Jean exhibiting a frantic and presently threatening complex of fear and anxiety beginning as he awakes in a confused state with little ability to manage his body. Jean could clearly understand his surroundings at the worst phase of his condition, and much more hauntingly the extent of the severity, but quite a dichotomy Jean’s cognitive function and Alice’s mental abilities share.

Alice receives her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease whilst she maintains most of her cognition, where she understands fully what she will soon begin to forget as her disease progresses and worsens (Glatzer and Westmoreland). The dread of the long-term diagnosis recognized in Alzheimer’s Disease comes with many emotional implications that would be expected from any degenerative disease. Alice begins preparing for the still-developing disease after she learns of her diagnosis, and stoically arranges a suicide attempt to be carried out once her neurodegeneration reaches a terrifying low (Glatzer and Westmoreland). The unknown future can be especially difficult with Alzheimer’s disease and this movie portrays her anxious thoughts thoroughly, showing her taking advantage of her remaining cognitive abilities by attempting to slow the disease and in her preparation of defeat. 

As patients experience emotional strain in many facets, those around them involved with them feel similar mental pain. In Still Alice, Alice’s family supports her early on in her decline, and they continue to stay close to her as her condition worsens. Her husband cares well enough for Alice as she begins to worsen with the help of their children, while trying to maintain his professional aspirations. As Alice progresses in neurodegeneration, she wishes to spend a year with her husband before her mind fails her. However, he is unwilling to leave his career for a year to spend time with Alice (Glatzer and Westmoreland). The films display the interesting dynamic of a care threshold that loved ones can experience when caring for a patient with a severe disease like Alzheimer’s Disease. Her husband supports her through the disease, but he wishes to retain his own career, so the plot exposes his threshold for care. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean Do receives a heart wrenching call from Ines explaining to him that she will come to visit him as a result of her diminished love for him in this decrepit state (Julian Schnabel). This film provides a much worse look at the threshold a loved one may possess in a situation with a neurological condition. Since Jean Do cannot properly speak or move well, Ines does not have the capacity for love. This example of the hardship affects both patients and loved ones, in hurting one and placing the guilt of care on the other, respectively. Ines must feel an obligation to stay alongside him throughout his potentially unsuccessful recovery, and this guilt alone can damage the livelihood of those in the immediate company of the sick.

Hopelessness develops as an integral theme in the portrayal of both of these films, noting the stark and inescapable realities both characters face. The resonance of this theme relates the severity of neurological diseases to the fear of hopelessness and sadness the audiences feels as Alice continues to digress and Jean Do struggles to speak or act. “Life is not worth living” says one out of every ten Alzheimer’s patients in a study conducted by Dylan Harwood, PhD and David Sultzer, MD, when he researched for mental health issues resulting from the disease. Some patients feel as though the qualities of life at their present progress and impending fear of future digression are not enjoyable or even tolerable (Harwood and Sultzer). As previously referenced, Alice elects to commit suicide following her cognitive decline, reflecting the work of Harwood and Sultzer on the sadness and despair of Alzheimer’s Disease patients. This impresses upon the viewer a call to action for both mental health aid as well as neurological research aid, showing the graphic realities of times where the patient simply cannot fight anymore. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly focuses on the cognitive hopelessness that Jean Do experiences, as he retains his emotional state as well as his state of reasoning and high-level thought. The movie depicts anxious scenes of confusion and anger in the beginning of his recovery. The doctors are not able to restructure the damage done by the stroke in a way that he might be healed quickly, so the hope for recovery becomes an unhittable mark in his mind throughout the film and his affliction.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Still Alice showcase more than aptly the horrible and unsettling realities of neurological diseases through the inclusion and accurate depiction of the extreme mental stressors accompanying the condition, the mirrored effect of emotional turmoil cast upon loved ones, and the heightened level of hopelessness identifiable with neurological diseases. Films that present these horrors prove invaluable to the multitudes of those who have never personally come in contact with afflictions of the mind, providing not only an explanation of experience, but also to motivate research, as well as drive the overall awareness and knowledge of neurological diseases and injuries.



Chriki, L., Bullain, S., Stern, T. (2006). The Recognition and Management of Psychological Reactions to Stroke: A Case Discussion. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry, 8(4), pp. 234-240. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1557466/


Harwood, D., Sultzer, D. (2002). “Life is Not Worth Living”: Hopelessness in Alzheimer’s Disease. Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, 15, pp. 38-42. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/089198870201500108


Kennedy, K., Kilk. J. (Producers), & Schnabel (Director). (2007). The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. [Motion Picture]. United States: Canal+, Kennedy/Marshall Company, France 3 Cinema. 


Styler, T., Koffler, P., Lutzus, L., Brown, J. (Producers), & Glazter, R. and Westmoreland, W. (Directors). (1994). Still Alice. [Motion Picture]. United States: Sony Pictures Classics. 


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