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'Diving Bell' Celebrates Life of the Mind

Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of French Elle, was 43 years old when he suffered a massive stroke in 1995.

The stroke left him paralyzed — except for his left eye. 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, and Bauby would blink when she came to the letter he wanted — and thus spell out his message.

Bit by excruciating bit — by blinking — Bauby dictated a book about his experience, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

That book is now a movie. Its first part is seen completely from Bauby's immobilized perspective: The viewer sees 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 that even capturing the blinks required a lot of thought.

For example, sometimes, "you're not really closing your eyes for very long, so it just seems to let you jar the image; it doesn't really eradicate the image," Schnabel tells Melissa Block.

"Basically, there's more than 50 different kind[s] 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."

He describes the necessity of re-creating life from Bauby's perspective.

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

After Bauby's "calamity of disappointments," Schnabel says that rather than being a prisoner of his body, Bauby created a job for himself: He decided he was going to write a book.

Schnabel says that book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, reports from a place where no one had ever been before — part of the reason the director says he wanted to make the movie.

"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," Schnabel says.

"You realize that you can actually do something if you have an interior life ... that people can have all their faculties, be perfectly healthy and not be alive at all."

Schnabel also describes the technical challenges of rendering the world from Bauby's viewpoint, why he decided to make the film in French and how important it was to shoot the movie at the French hospital where Bauby spent the last months of his life.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.