Side by Side: The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “The Sea Inside” both look at devastating disabilities, but their characters have internal differences.

A disabled person should not be defined by their disability. This much we know, especially in the movies. But should they be defined by the fate they’ve chosen, or should family, friends and society have an impact on what someone stuck in this position should be able to say and do with their life?

“The Sea Inside” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” are two Oscar nominated foreign films about people who have suffered accidents and are now rendered immobile, but not incommunicable. Yet they differ in terms of how they express themselves, their internal dreams, ambitions and wishes for their body, and the movies follow suit.

Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside” won the Foreign Language Oscar in 2004 for Spain, and it’s a tear-jerking crowd pleaser about an overall good man who simply wants to die, not out of misery but out of tranquility.

Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” on the other hand is much more surreal, art house and assertively French. Its themes and its story may scream Oscar bait, but its presentation certainly does not. That however did not prevent it from picking up four nominations in 2007 anyway. Its character is miserable enough that he would likely kill himself if he could, or if he could communicate it, but his reasons are much more cynical.

I watched these two films in succession because my sister is currently in a summer psychology course. It points out through these films that there are numerous thought processes that would influence a person to want death, and neither of them have strictly to do with circumstances.

What I found curious about the films is that each plays with its melodramatic overtones, and the tearjerker is not always the most exploitative, nor is the art film the most firm.

“The Sea Inside” does not pity Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem). Although he feels he has no dignity remaining in this position, Amenabar does not put Ramon in a completely debilitating state. Bardem’s hair is graying and frayed, but he maintains a shred of his movie star good looks. And his little quips and analogies to his young nephew and a newfound friend on the radio are earned to the point that they show wisdom in Ramon. He provides the audience with enough tiny emotions and impasses worth overcoming that make life worth taking on, even if he has given up.

“You learn to cry with a smile,” he says, compassionately demonstrating his appreciation of his family’s care and accepting of the image he puts out to the world. Bardem’s performance is tempered enough that he can calmly let us know he’s suffering; it’s beautifully understated melodrama.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

“Diving Bell” on the other hand pulls no punches in alerting us to the gravity of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s (Mathieu Amalric) condition. Schnabel makes the bold presumption that he can take us inside the mind of someone with “locked-in syndrome.” Perhaps he saw some of his own hubris in Jean-Do’s attempt to rewrite Alexandre Dumas and aimed to create the sensation of one person’s unique point of view.

Through artsy, expressionistic, yet completely earned visions of hazy colors, eyes within eyes, flickering lights and skewed perception and framing, Schnabel shows us the pain of witnessing your own eye being sewn shut with no power to stop it. He finally pulls back and reveals Jean-Do in all his glory, and the image is not a pretty one.

Here is a film in which the director does not opt for melodrama and the character is so cynical and uncaring that he eventually asks for neither pity nor death, and yet in showing Jean-Do as repulsive as he is, offers the hardest punch to the gut.

But in keeping the perspective internalized for so long, “Diving Bell” is surprisingly the more outward looking film than “The Sea Inside.” Ramon gets the chance to communicate and discuss feelings with his visitors and care takers, but even when a Catholic Cardinal visits, Ramon is the focal point as ideas and philosophies are projected inward on his situation. His family expresses their doubts, but he’s in control and at the front of our minds.

For Jean-Do, he can do nothing but begrudgingly listen, and through an off-set camera that never moves, we peer more deeply into the souls of Jean-Do’s father (Max von Sydow being generally brilliant), his nurses and the mother of his children.There’s a heart-wrenching scene where Neils Arestrup sits and recounts his years as a hostage thanks to a plane seat that would’ve been Jean-Do’s. “Hold fast to the human inside you, and you’ll survive,” he says, a profound, universal statement that bests any of the tearjerker courtroom drama scenes or dream sequences in “The Sea Inside.”

And yet what make both films so similar are not the accidental disabilities, the symbolic dream sequences or the true stories in which each wrote a book before their death, but the fact that both Ramon and Jean-Do share a healthy passion for women and a sense of humor.

These women are the most influential parts in their lives. Less love interests and more companions, they reveal as much tender vulnerability as though they were in the presence of a capable romantic lead. They plead to help in any way they can but quietly lament when minds are made up.

In “The Sea Inside,” Ramon’s sister-in-law plans her day around Ramon’s schedule, and Ramon’s girlfriend Rosa needs Ramon as a sounding board. If he gets his way, they’ll be missing a crucial part of their livelihood.

The same can be said about “Diving Bell.” In one powerful scene, Jean-Do is blinking to his lovely nurse Henriette, “I want death.” She lashes out and shames him for wanting something so selfish when people have put hours and days of painstaking effort into getting him to communicate again. When she returns to the room, she apologizes and respects his bravery and his choices.

In a way, both perspectives seem right, and it begs the question, is it selfish to choose what you get to do what your life? Is your life entirely your own? Is it not your right but your privilege to uphold, take care of and cherish such that others can enjoy theirs?

These are devastating questions, and if Louis C.K. can make them funny and insightful in an episode about a comedian friend looking to kill himself, surely these films can too. Jean-Do finds attitude and sarcasm when another film would be nothing but pity. Ramon finds charm and musicality when another film would be only somber.

These are films in which the characters have the same affliction but a different wish, the same ideas but a different stylistic approach and the same level of quality but different aspirations. And yet each feels universal in its portrayal of a life well spent.