The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Based on a true story is a tricky thing

with 8 comments

The Diving Belly and the Butterfly lived up to the expectations that such a beautiful name will evoke.

I shed quite a few tears as I watched it. Of course. I thought of my own grandfather, who is in his 90s, and close to deaf and blind, but with an intellect that is as sharp as ever, a professor used to spend all his days reading and writing, now trapped into his own diving belly. I believe the movie comes fairly close to what it must be like to be him.

But almost as much as I cried did I laugh – more than you would think considering the situation it depicts – a middleaged man completely immobilized after suffering from a stroke, only able to communicate by blinking the one eye he had left. Thankfully enough the Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby was gifted with a great sense of humor and a vivid imagination, which makes this movie equally enjoyable and hopeful as it’s sad.

I enjoyed the way the story is told – mainly from the perspective of Bauby, with a few digs into his memory and his imagination – actually quite similar to how 127 hours, the movie with the guy who had his arm stuck under a rock, was told. Why don’t we once for all dismiss the idea that you can’t make a movie about an event where the viewers already know the outcome and the people involved are stuck in one place? You can do it perfectly well; it just takes a good writer.

To summarize it, I liked the movie so much that I was considering giving it a spot on my top 100 movies in my next revision. But then something happened, and now I’m not so sure anymore.

Right or not – my feelings for this movie are very mixed.

The Salon article
What happened was that I came across an article at Salon, titled “The truth about “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. It tells the pretty ugly story about how the friends of Bauby actually are upset about how the movie turned out. What bothers them most was how some of the women around Bauby are pictured.

In the movie we get to see his ex wife regularly visiting him on the hospital, and she comes out as an example of virtue and unselfishness, while Bauby’s current girlfriend never has the guts to show up and is the only character in the entire movie to be pictured in an unsympathetic way.

In reality, according to this article, it was rather the opposite. The ex-wife didn’t visit Bauby more than a few times, while his girlfriend spent a lot of time at the hospital. However, Bauby’s ex-wife is the mother of his children, inherited all the rights of his book and the movie. Being an accomplished business woman and a bit of a PR genius; she hasn’t hesitated to use her influence to serve her own purposes.  The screenwriter, saying that he “doesn’t believe in research”, has to great extent based the movie on discussions he’s had with the ex-wife, making the excuse: “You have to tell a story in a movie”.

I haven’t done any research myself of course, so I can’t tell if Salon is correct or not. But if they’re telling the truth, I really find it hard to justify how they’ve twisted the story in the movie.

“Based on a true story”
We all know that a movie labeled “based on a true story” isn’t a documentary and can’t be expected to be correct in every detail. It’s an interpretation, a story that is influenced by a real event. Rather than recreating the events, you try to capture the spirit of them, what they felt like to those involved. We’re talking about two different approaches – Touching the Void vs 127 hours – and both can be justified depending on what you want to achieve and the nature of the events.

However, in the case of The Diving Belly and the Butterfly, I can’t see any good reason to change the circumstances this way, at least not from an artistic point of view. It could have been just as a good movie with the girlfriend pictured as someone who came to the hospital and didn’t let him down. It wouldn’t change the way we sympathize with Bauby, it wouldn’t take away anything of the tragedy, the pain and the struggles of his family and friend to cope with what’s happening, to connect to him through this one, staring eye.

It makes me immensely sad to think about what his girlfriend and his friend must feel about this movie, robbing them on their memories, violating them and spreading those lies all over the world.

Beth Arnold at The Salon ended her article saying that the film is beautiful and that it deserves the awards it has won. But she also puts a question: “Does it matter that a revisionist history – the New Real Story – has replaced the truth and affected the real people involved?”

Yes, it matters as far as I’m concerned, even though I understand that others may think differently. In the end I decided to give the movie a 4/5 rating, since I thought it was a masterpiece before I knew the story behind it. But it left me with a bad taste in my mouth and because of this it will never turn up in my book of the Truly Great Movies of the World.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly ( Le scaphandre et le papillon,  Schnabel, FR/US, 2007) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

August 24, 2011 at 1:00 am

8 Responses

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  1. I was very moved by this beautiful film when I saw it a few years back. I own the film, but have not watched it since. I really want to now. Great write up!

    Andrew Buckle

    August 24, 2011 at 7:00 am

    • Thanks! I look forward to see your take on it if you revisit it.

      Jessica

      August 24, 2011 at 7:20 am

  2. It’s a great movie. And if it’s true or not doesn’t bother me much. They should have just removed the “based on a true story” and be done with it.

    Carra

    August 24, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    • I’m still not sure if that would have been enough. Well… I suppose it would be if they switched all the names so it became a work of imagination so to say. I feel sorry for the gf. But maybe I’m overly softhearted.

      Jessica

      August 24, 2011 at 10:07 pm

  3. this is a very good film…your review makes me think of Who Shot Liberty Valance (“print the legend”). cheers,

    harvey zissou

    August 25, 2011 at 9:13 am

    • In this case though it wasn’t the legend before the movie came out. They just changed the story to suit the wife better. At least if you’re to believe the article about it. Good movie though, I agree about that.

      Jessica

      August 25, 2011 at 4:50 pm

  4. I have to say this sounded interesting … until you mentioned the controversy. Then all desire to one day watch this faded within me.

    I know when things are adapated to the screen (or even to the written word, though in a somewhat different fashion) things need to be simplified. But actually changed to be something very different … that I strongly dislike. I am, admittedly, generally unable to just watch (or read) something on its own merits, for me the context is always part of the experience, if that makes sense.

    Lewis Maskell

    August 26, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    • I can’t blame you for getting put off by it. Learning about it changed my view on it. Perhaps I should regret reading that stuff, biting the apple… Because it WAS a great movie until I knew. And now I’m maybe ruining it for others, spreading the background story like this. But I couldn’t remain silent about it, it got too me and I needed to get it off my chest.

      Jessica

      August 26, 2011 at 10:42 pm


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