Monday, October 21, 2013


Even those of us in poor physical shape take a lot for granted.  We are mobile enough to get from one point to another, to feed ourselves and to easily use a remote control.  We don't like to think about it, but being totally helpless is almost or even more frightening than death.

Many movies have portrayed this helplessness and I have chosen to discuss four foreign ones where the lead character is physically helpless.  "The Sea Inside", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", "Guzarrish", and "The Intouchables".  They were all well done and perhaps because they personalized a great human fear each left a strong impact.  SPOILER ALERT--the endings are important to the discussion.  I think you can enjoy these movies even after knowing the endings.

To create sympathy for the main characters there had to be a contrast between what was before, and what happened after the cause of paralysis. Usually either a flashback or some pre event coverage established the dynamism for the main character.  Another method was by projection where the main character was imagined to be doing something impossible and desirable, especially well done in" The Sea Inside", but also in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "Guzaarish".

Another common denominator is that each protagonist had a sense of humor which helped them to get through the ordeal.  In "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" the viewer was privileged to hear the protagonist's thoughts and we could laugh even though the other participants didn't get the humor. Each protagonist displays a humorous perspective on their situation.  The rest of us can be so pompous and deluded that we can't laugh at ourselves or our situations.

"The Sea Inside" (2004) was based on the life of Ramon Sampedro who was noted for spreading joy while campaigning for his own death.  Javier Bardem portrays Ramon as a charming mostly bed-ridden man who writes poetry and has connections to the outside world.  Most of those close to him are part of his team in his campaign for the right to die, except his brother whose house he lives in.  We learn that many women love him and in reality Ramon actually had more women enamored of him than was in the movie script.  Belen Rueda, an especially beautiful actress, is brought in as his lawyer and later we learn chosen because she also has a debilitating disease.  Javier is confronted by priests who try to convince him his wish to die is sinful.  After a court rejection he arranges his own death with the help of his network of supporters.  Won Oscar as best foreign language film as well as several international awards.  Directed by Alejandro Amenabar who I have admired in other blogs

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007) starts with us the viewers looking through a hazy veil from what we soon learn are the eyes of the protagonist, played by Mathieu Amalric  who is not sure what has happened.  He takes awhile to realize he can't speak and can't move.  We viewers are also privileged to hear his thoughts and go through some of his confusion.  The staff at the hospital have already devised a scheme to help him communicate, but it is very arduous requiring the therapist to go through the alphabet (arranged by most heavily used letter to least used) and stop when Mathieu blinks with his left eye.  His speech therapist played by Marie-Josee Croze becomes very upset and leaves the room when she learns he wants to die, but comes back and apologizes.  She later takes him to church to meet with a priest.  She has one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever enjoyed at a movie.

Director Julian Schnable elects to use flashbacks and projections. Mathieu had left one lover (mother of his children) for another, but after his paralysis his wife (in the screen version) tended to him, but at one point she had to pass on a message that he wanted to see the other.  This total type of paralysis was labeled "locked in syndrome" and he could only move his one eyelid and part of his tongue. Julian Schnable director, and  Ron Harwood, writer, created movie based on autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby.  Emmanuelle Seigner, and Max Von Sydow had significant roles.  At one point a fly that Mathieu cannot shake away is used to illustrate his helplessness.  In real life Jean-Dominique Bauby, was an editor at Elle magazine and spent most of his time writing his autobiography.  At the end we are told that Mathieu's character dies a natural death.  Won at Cannes. Originally saw this movie because I had checked movies with Niels Arestrup (a Rod Steiger type of character) and noticed this one.  Niels had only a small role, but I got to see a big movie.

"Guzzarish" (2010) Hrithik Roshan is the top male dancer in Bollywood and is often seen in muscular roles so a contrast was strongly made.  He really can act and in this he plays a magician where one trick went tragically wrong causing him to be a quadriplegic.  He becomes a popular disc jockey who occasionally gives inspirational speeches to other quadriplegics.  His nurse is the actress, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, once considered the most beautiful woman in the world who secretly loved our hero.  Near the beginning of the movie, a fly on the nose is used to illustrate how helpless Hrithik is, but in this case after trying to wave his head to get it to move Hrithik actually smiled calmly when the fly sat on his nose.  Towards the end of the movie he is tortured by constant raindrops on his head with no one to protect him.   Like Javier, Hrithik has to deal with priests who try to deter him from his wish to die.  When he got angry he sometimes asked his nurse and others to break a vase to help relieve his tension.  He doesn't win his court case despite persuading trial prosecutor to be in a box to illustrate how unbearable helplessness can be.  He is alive at the end having just married Aishwarya, but I am not sure what his intention was as she married him knowing that his fortune had been long gone and she would inherit nothing.  Won awards for special effects--Hrithik's "mishap" is shown with spectacular realism.

"The Intouchables" brings a rich man together with a poor man. Francois Cluzet is introduced to us as a wealthy, cultured quadriplegic in the process of hiring a male nurse aid.  Omar Sy is just trying to keep getting his welfare money and wants the protagonist to sign a form.  Francois is intrigued and ends up hiring him and it is an adjustment for both of them.  Omar is forced to sit through a number of high cultural events, but eventually he lures his quadriplegic boss to another level of culture which they both enjoy.  Omar expands the quadriplegic in different ways eventually bringing him to marry a woman he was too shy to approach directly.  Francois kicks back a bit with a little deception of own and the two go para gliding, the activity that caused the paralysis.  This is based on a true story and ends with a note explaining that two real characters were still alive and enjoying life.  This movie was entertaining and successful commercially.  There were a few scenes of physiotherapy where you could appreciate the problems keeping a quadriplegic healthy.  Unlike the other movies there was no court case.

Switching to an earlier English language version, "Whose Life is it Anyway" originally a British tv drama in 1972 then turned into a theatre play performed in London and New York.  Written by Brian Clark.  In 1983 it was redone for a movie with Richard Dreyfuss.  The former sculpter becomes a quadriplegic as the result of a car accident.  The play is about philosophical arguments for and against being allowed to die.  In a court case he fails to win his desire.

Christopher Reeve deserves a mention as he really was paralyzed after an equestrian accident.and did do a few movies that in some ways hit just as hard because the viewer had seen him as Superman.  He was known as an actor who turned down glamorous roles for more worthy challenges.  He accepted Superman because of the challenge of also playing Clark Kent.  By being open about what it was like to be a quadriplegic Christopher made more people aware of it and raised money for spinal chord research, some of which has had impacts.  He went to Israel as they were more advanced in research. He became a political activist as there was right wing religious resistance to stem cell research.   He also headed an organization to make independent living for paralyzed people more feasible.  He died of complications.

Legal issues revolved around the right to die. All court cases resulted in denying an end to suffering. In all cases the protagonist struggled with a sense of purpose.  Life and death matters concern us all. All living creatures naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain.  As thinking beings we think we can evaluate our own circumstances.  As feeling beings we are subject to emotions overwhelming logic. We do not allow animals to suffer, but a fellow human being is too close to us and we can't usually imagine suffering enough to want to die.   Sometimes a life and death decision is called for.  Who gets to decide?  Who wants to decide?  A natural concern is that those with a vested interest might manipulate.

What do you say to someone who has lost the ability to take care of themselves, to enjoy the things that made life enjoyable to them and who feel helpless and dependent on others.  Even though we may love them they feel horrible about being a burden.  Ultimately I believe the decision should be made by the person involved, although as outsiders we want to be assured that is a real and informed choice.  As outsiders we take a lot for granted and we can be self righteous about the importance of things.

For us the viewer--how often do we take the gift of life for granted.  How often do we complain about our limitations?  How often do we abuse our bodies and minds with junk?  Some people think bad misfortune is for a reason and that people can benefit from their challenge.

This has been my 200th post.  Thank you readers for encouraging me to get this far.

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