'Diving Bell' Celebrates Life of the Mind

Mathieu Amalric plays French editor Jean-Dominique Bauby i i

Mathieu Amalric plays French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby — who suffered a massive stroke when was 43 — in Julian Schnabel's new film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films
Mathieu Amalric plays French editor Jean-Dominique Bauby

Mathieu Amalric plays French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby — who suffered a massive stroke when was 43 — in Julian Schnabel's new film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films
Despite being paralyzed except for his left eye, Bauby dictated a book to transcriber Claude i i

Despite being paralyzed except for his left eye, Bauby dictated a book to transcriber Claude (played by Anne Cosigny). Here, she shows Bauby the finished version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films
Despite being paralyzed except for his left eye, Bauby dictated a book to transcriber Claude

Despite being paralyzed except for his left eye, Bauby dictated a book to transcriber Claude (played by Anne Cosigny). Here, she shows Bauby the finished version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Etienne George/Courtesy of Miramax Films

Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle, was 43 years old when he suffered a massive stroke in 1995.

The stroke left him paralyzed — except for his left eye. That tiny portal became Bauby's means of communication.

The therapist at his hospital came up with a system. She would read through letters of the alphabet, and Bauby would blink when she came to the letter he wanted — and thus spell out his message.

Bit by excruciating bit — by blinking — Bauby dictated a book about his experience, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

That book is now a movie. Its first part is seen completely from Bauby's immobilized perspective: The viewer sees only what he sees.

And it's dizzying to watch: Faces dart in and out of the frame; images blur. His eye has become the camera's lens.

Director Julian Schnabel says that even capturing the blinks required a lot of thought.

For example, sometimes, "you're not really closing your eyes for very long, so it just seems to let you jar the image; it doesn't really eradicate the image," Schnabel tells Melissa Block.

"Basically, there's more than 50 different kind[s] of blinks. And until you start making a movie about a guy blinking, you don't really notice that. You just think the word 'blink' means blink."

He describes the necessity of re-creating life from Bauby's perspective.

"I think you need to go into his world in order to get out of his world. And he said the only way he could escape his diving bell was through his imagination and his memory. Those were the only two things that weren't paralyzed, besides his left eye," Schnabel says.

After Bauby's "calamity of disappointments," Schnabel says that rather than being a prisoner of his body, Bauby created a job for himself: He decided he was going to write a book.

Schnabel says that book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, reports from a place where no one had ever been before — part of the reason the director says he wanted to make the movie.

"I figured if I told this story, I could actually help somebody else, and I could help myself, because I think it's extremely optimistic. I think it's life-affirming," Schnabel says.

"You realize that you can actually do something if you have an interior life ... that people can have all their faculties, be perfectly healthy and not be alive at all."

Schnabel also describes the technical challenges of rendering the world from Bauby's viewpoint, why he decided to make the film in French and how important it was to shoot the movie at the French hospital where Bauby spent the last months of his life.

'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'

Marie-Josée Croze in 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' i i

In the eye, behold: Marie-Josée Croze plays the speech therapist who helps a paralyzed magazine editor learn to communicate again — by blinking — in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Etienne George/Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Etienne George/Miramax Films
Marie-Josée Croze in 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'

In the eye, behold: Marie-Josée Croze plays the speech therapist who helps a paralyzed magazine editor learn to communicate again — by blinking — in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Etienne George/Miramax Films
  • Director: Julian Schnabel
  • Genre: Biography/Drama
  • Running Time: 112 minutes

Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, was a womanizing man-about-Paris at 43. Then he was felled by a massive stroke.

He awoke in a hospital bed, unable to move or to speak, an angry, unrepentant prisoner of his own body. Only his left eye worked — but that eye proved a window to the world, because with it, Bauby could blink yes-or-no answers to questions. And once a therapist devised a system for him, he could blink whole words and phrases.

And over the course of 14 months, he was able to blink out, one letter at a time, a best-selling memoir of his ordeal called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — a memoir that possibly no one but a neo-expressionist artist like Julian Schnabel would regard as an attractive basis for a film.

What's fascinating is that it is the very restrictions the story imposes on a director that allow Schnabel to turn it into such an eerie stunner of a movie. The first part of the film is told entirely from Bauby's point of view, with the camera seeing only the blurry, imprecise images that he sees: When his right eye must be sewn shut to keep it from drying out, we see that from inside the eyelid.

But once Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) manages to blink his way into communication with those around him, the director pulls back to let us see what they're seeing, and the picture isn't pretty. The man is a mess — and was not, we gather from those who visit him, a very nice guy before the stroke.

But intellectually, and in his struggle, he is a fascinating creature, and this film — rigorously unsentimental, psychologically acute, and wildly creative in its use of the camera — gives him his due. (Recommended)

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