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Bauby’s transcriber, Claude (Anne Cosigny), shows him the finished book.

The blink of an eye

Movies | Diving Bell is a loving portrait of an amazing writer

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 15, 2007

Fuzzy images and confusion open The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel's new film based on the amazing real-life story of French writer Jean-Dominique Bauby.

As Bauby (Mathieu Almaric) begins to focus his vision, it becomes clear that the setting is a hospital room. Doctors and loved ones circle, expressing relief as he regains consciousness. But as they continue to repeat questions that he has answered, it becomes clear to him, and us, that they cannot hear him.

Until this point, Bauby had been the well-known editor of Elle magazine. But in 1995 he suffered a stroke that left him unable to move his body or speak. Afflicted with a condition known depressingly as locked-in syndrome, he only had control over his left eyelid and he died two years later.

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Despite his predicament, Bauby managed to write an elegiac book about his condition. With the help of an amanuensis and recurrently ordered alphabet, he blinked its entire contents. Shying away from pity and self-help aphorism, Bauby conveys beautiful scenes from his past life and the difficulties of his condition with humor and wit. And yet, reading the book underscores the oppressiveness of Bauby's condition. The patience and concentration necessary to create the work, let alone edit and finalize it, is hard to comprehend.

But with Diving Bell (rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual content, and language), director Schnabel has liberated Bauby. Showing the view from his clever mind, Schnabel lets the audience in on the thoughts and jokes that his loved ones and caretakers struggle to interpret.

Shifting perspectives into the reality of his now incapacitated physical visage and the exoticism of his past life and current dreams, Schnabel has created a loving portrait in watercolor detail.

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