In the Blink of an Eye

Before reading Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, I assumed it would be jam-packed with ELLE Magazine drama, love affairs, and a few wise words about the joys of wealthy retirement. Little did I know, the memoir was written after Bauby suffered a massive stroke, paralyzing him completely except for his left eyeball. Not only did I have hundreds of questions about the manner in which he wrote the memoir, but even more about how to create a film whose narrator and main character cannot move. It seems impossible to express the thoughts and emotions of someone who cannot speak, but American director Julian Schnabel conquered this project with elegance and understanding.

The screenplay arrived at Julian Schnabel’s door unexpectedly. The rights for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly originally belonged to Universal Studio with Johnny Depp intending to play Bauby. However, Universal withdrew and Schnabel ( Depp’s recommended director) took the film to France’s Pathé studio and directed the film. According to an interview, Schnabel connected personally with the script after the recent death of his father. In addition, Schabel is also a painter. His artistic eye adds a unique and creative aspect to an already unique and creative narrative. Schnabel’s grief, artistic background, and fascination with first-person cinema provided a perfect formula for a beautifully emotional film.

 Among the multitude of creative shooting and editing techniques, one stands out. Schnabel opens the film entirely from Bauby’s perspective, giving the spectator a very narrow view of his world – brilliantly depicting the sensation of paralysis through first-person shots. This first segment, though under ten minutes long, feels endless. The camera jerks around, jumps between depths of focus, and rests on mundane objects rather than the speakers.  The camerawork is so effective that it paralyzes the spectator (it was so agonizing that when I involuntarily itched my arm, I felt a burst of adrenaline). Schnabel uses his camera to demonstrate the pains and frustrations of “locked in syndrome.” Rather than providing a clear, all-encompassing view of the room and all its characters, the camera drifts to and from insignificant subjects. This is not only paralyzing for the viewer, but frustrating. We want to see the faces of his visitors, and we want Bauby to stop interrupting so we can hear the doctors, but Scnhabel does not grant us that privilege. He wants to expose his audience to the entirely foreign sensation of paralysis.

This sense of paralysis is further emphasized by Schnabel’s projection of Bauby’s imagination. Schnabel strings together beautiful montages of fluidity and movement in nature that make Bauby’s state all the more heartbreaking. These brackets of non-diegetic images recalls Schnabel’s painting background, for each shot has its own fluid and breathtaking quality. In these images, the camera finally shows what the viewer wants to see. Not only are we satisfied with less constricted view of these beautiful scenes, but they are also narrated by the exact words from Bauby’s memoir, all of which are poetic and lyrical. The natural fluidity of Bauby’s imagination and memory flood the viewer with satisfaction and pleasure that, until that point, Schnabel had denied us.

Through a very limited lens, the spectator learns to reduce an entire human life to one letter at a time; to one blink of an eye. The production was a very personal experience for all involved, and the product carries that through.
For more of Bauby’s poetic fluidity, get your hands on a copy of his memoir of the same title here.

By Laura Kinter

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