Magazine article The American Conservative

The Beholder of the Eye

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Beholder of the Eye

Article excerpt

[The Diving Bell and the Butterfly]

DESPITE DESERVED Oscar nominations for Best Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Cinematography, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a sophisticated triumph of the human spirit movie, hasn't been able to break out of the art-house ghetto. Its ponderous title, which is both too literary and too literal (and mistranslated to boot), can't have helped.

The film is based on a charming memoir written, incredibly, by a man able to move only his left eyelid. Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of the fashion magazine Elle, suffered a massive brain stem stroke while test-driving next year's model BMW. When he awoke from his coma, he was informed that he suffered, permanently, from "maladie de l'emmure vivant," or "locked-in syndrome."

The unfortunate title (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon in this subtitled film's original French) comes from Bauby's metaphorical contrast of his body, which felt like it was encased in one of those vintage pressurized diving suits--not a "diving bell," which is an open-bottomed structure--with his mind, which could float like a butterfly through his luxurious memories. He could even relish new sights and (being French) smells. Indeed, The Diving Bell is an ode to the French genius for enjoying small pleasures.

"Blink" would have been a simpler, more evocative title because his speech therapist taught him to communicate using his eyelid. She would repeat the alphabet (re-sorted in order of frequency of use in French) until he blinked his one good eye to stop her at the right letter.

Director Julian Schnabel, the New York artist turned moviemaker, employs prodigious imagination to liven up the proceedings, filming many scenes from Bauby's perspective. Nevertheless, "The Diving Bell's" pace is necessarily languid. With time on my hands, I wondered if Morse Code, which POW Jeremiah Denton used to blink "t-o-r-t-u-r-e" on North Vietnamese television, wouldn't have been faster.

Bauby composed his text in his head each morning, memorized it, and then dictated it to a secretary for three hours per day for two months. His short book of about 25,000 words was published in 1997 to rapturous reviews two days before his death.

It's a wonderful story, but is it true? …

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