Volume 20, Number 29 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Nov. 30 - Dec. 6, 2007

Speaking volumes in the blink of an eye

By Steven Snyder

Not only an awe-inspiring testament to the resilience of the human spirit and a fascinating examination of the nature of visual communication, Julian Schnabel’s utterly captivating “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” is above all a powerful evocation of the passion that burns within the hearts of the true artists.

Most shocking of all, it’s based on a true story. In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor with Elle magazine, experienced a massive, devastating stroke, collapsing in the car with his son and awaking in a hospital, his eyes slowly adjusting to the light, a whole new reality coming into focus. It was only after the hospital staff tried to talk with the writer that Bauby came to realize the thoughts rummaging around inside his mind were never reaching his lips, and his words weren’t being spoken, much less heard.

Bauby learned that he was suffering from “locked-in syndrome,” a condition in which he could perceive, comprehend and react to everything happening around him, but in which his frail and immobilized body made it impossible for him to project any of that to those around him. In Bauby’s case, the syndrome was so severe, that literally none of his muscles functioned as designed — not his legs, arms, lips, or even his right eye. Instead, it was through his left eye, and his left eyelid, that he was able to cling to the life he once knew.

As directed by Schnabel, a renowned painter when he is not directing such Oscar contenders as 2000’s “Before the Night Falls,” Bauby’s inspirational story is not one of the body, but of the mind. Devastated by both his loss of mobility, and his utter inability to reach out with words — the very tools of the profession that had come to define his life — what we witness in “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is the slow and steady rebuilding of a man’s sense of purpose.

With the aid of a persistent, patient, and occasionally aggressive personal speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), Bauby slowly emerges from his mental cocoon. He starts testing where his now-limited field of vision begins and ends. Holding a printed alphabet, and teaching Bauby a system of communication that involves only the blinking of his eyelid, Henriette finds a way for the writer to get his thoughts back onto paper.
As Bauby’s sense of resignation turns to a surge of passion, he commits himself to writing again, and not just to a magazine article, but a book, a complete first-person account of what it’s like to be trapped in one’s own body.

By placing us firmly within Bauby’s mind, looking out through his eye, Schanbel helps us to feel the same sense of terror and despondency that the fallen editor must have felt during those first, disorienting days. Our field of vision shares his blurs and distortions, and our window to the world closes with each blink of the eye as we count out each letter of every word. Other tellings of this true tale may have focused more on the family’s response, the commitment of the medical team, or the crafting of that first post-stroke novel. But as far as Schnabel is concerned, the novel is an afterthought to the real battle that played out before its first page.

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