'Diving Bell' Celebrates Life of the Mind The new film by Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, depicts the reawakening of a French magazine editor after a massive stroke left him paralyzed except for his left eye. That tiny portal became his means of communication.
NPR logo

'Diving Bell' Celebrates Life of the Mind

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16780118/16784401" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Diving Bell' Celebrates Life of the Mind

'Diving Bell' Celebrates Life of the Mind

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16780118/16784401" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle magazine, was 43 years old when he suffered a massive stroke. It left him paralyzed, able to move only his left eye. And 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, Bauby would blink when she came to the letter he wanted to spell out his message. And bit by excruciating bit — by blinking — he dictated a book about his experience titled, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

That book is now a movie. In this scene, we hear Bauby's therapist trying out the letter system for the first time.

(Soundbite of movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Ms. MARIE-JOSEE CROZE (Actor): (As Henriette Durand) (Speaking in foreign language)

BLOCK: And we hear what Bauby is thinking: hurry up.

(Soundbite of movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Mr. MATTHEW AMALRIC (Actor): (as Jean-Dominique Bauby) (Speaking in foreign language)

Ms. CROZE: (As Henriette Durand) (Speaking in foreign language)

BLOCK: The first part of the movie is seen completely from Bauby's immobilized perspective: we see 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 even capturing the blinks required a lot of thought.

Mr. JULIAN SCHNABEL (Director, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"): Because there are many different kinds of blinks. First, you do it and then, you know, as you try to make it real, you know? It's not just a shutter closing that's black, and then you're seeing a scene.

When people are in the sun, red comes through your skin when you're blinking. Sometimes, you're blinking you're not really closing your eyes for very long, so it just seems to like jar the image. It doesn't really eradicate the image. And so, basically, there's more than 50 different kind 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.

BLOCK: The way we experience what Jean-Dominique Bauby is seeing at the beginning of the film, you know, when he cries, the image gets blurry. At one point, a friend comes and puts a furry hat on his head and he must push it down too far, so you see sort of the edge of the fur at the top of the screen. I mean, how are you shooting this? What were you doing technically?

Mr. SCHNABEL: I take my hand stuck at the top of the camera.

BLOCK: And just put it down over the lens a bit?

Mr. SCHNABEL: Yes, and I use a swing-and-tilt lens, which is a lens that has rubber in it. And you can make it more focused in one place and more out of focus in another at the same time. And, you know, if you notice the way you see - everything isn't always perfectly in focus everywhere on your frame. I mean, that's just - that looks like a magazine. It doesn't look like life.

BLOCK: How did you decide when would be the right time to move that camera away, take the image not just from his viewpoint, not just from his eye looking out, but to show the audience the whole, the whole person?

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

So after he's had this sort of calamity of disappointments, I thought, okay. He can either stay in that body and just rot there or he can do something with himself. And what he did is he created a job for himself. He decided he was going to write this book. He had a contract to write a book. And the writing of the book by blinking his eye is really the achievement. And what happened is he made this book, and it's like a baton that he handed off to Claude Mendibil who then handed it off to us, and now we're the recipient of this person who reported back from a place when no one had ever done before.

BLOCK: Claude Mendibil is the woman who's hired to essentially translate the blinking of Jean-Dominique Bauby through this system of decoding letters that he's hearing and blinking when he hears the one that he wants, translating that into words and then into this book.

Mr. SCHNABEL: Absolutely. And there's a scene in the movie where the first moment he meets her, he's lying in bed and she walks into the room and he says to her, (foreign language spoken), which means don't panic. And I think that if you're going to try to seduce a woman and you're absolutely paralyzed and she's perfectly healthy, that's kind of a funny thing to say.

BLOCK: This scene is remarkable because he's communicating at this point through his speech therapist. And what had begun is a very laborious process of her reading these letters and waiting for him to blink at the right one, it's become like second nature. And let's listen to this little bit.

(Soundbite of movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

Ms. CROZE: (As Henriette Durand) (Speaking in foreign language)

BLOCK: It's wonderful to listen to her. It's really become its own language there.

Mr. SCHNABEL: Thank you for playing that. It was very sweet. I didn't expect to hear that. But I must say that I decided to make this movie in French because, first of all, he was a French author in a French hospital in France that I'd sort of be damned if French people are going to have to read French subtitles. Once I heard this woman in France delivering the alphabet with their beautiful voices, it was very comforting to me and, I think, to the audience, to Jean-Do. And just as an element of the film, it was something that I was very happy to find out.

BLOCK: You filmed the movie at the hospital on the French channel coast where Jean-Dominique will be spent the last months of his life. Why was it important, do you think, for you to do that?

Mr. SCHNABEL: I couldn't make the movie in any other place. Everything was there. It was like having my own studio there. If at 3:30 the light was right in the (unintelligible), in the corridor, I could stop shooting there and go to this other part of the hospital. If I saw the tide come in 500 meters or knew when it's going to come in, I could take the stanchion that was on the beach and put his wheelchair on top of it, and then it looked like he would be - sitting in the water in this - in the middle of the sea in his wheelchair.

And when somebody says that they're on the far edge of life, that's pretty good approximation of that. And the landscape was probably one of the protagonists of the film. I mean, nature, the landscape, the hospital, the compassion that the - actually the first person you see is his nurse, his real nurse, Virginia.

And what was really nice is that when people from other hospital saw the movie, they thought this movie should be in all hospitals, and that doctors and nurses and patients could see this and that would encourage them to make them feel like there was possibility of communicating - that I didn't bargain for. I didn't realize that.

But I've made this movie because 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 and you realize that you can actually do something if you have an interior life that it's a wonderful thing to have and that people can have all their faculties be perfectly healthy and not be alive at all. But if you're conscious that - I think consciousness is life.

BLOCK: Julian Schnabel, thanks very much.

Mr. SCHNABEL: Thank you.

BLOCK: Julian Schnabel is director of the film, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.