In the Jorge Luis Borges story ‘The Secret Miracle’, the protagonist, Jaromir Hladik - a writer who, “like every writer, measured the virtues of other writers by their performance, and asked that they measured him by what he conjectured or planned” - is sentenced to death by the Gestapo for “Judaizing” in his works. Hladik’s greatest fear and regret, as he awaits the firing squad for ten long days and nights, is that he will not get to finish his master work, the verse drama ‘The Enemies’. He prays for one thing only: that God might delay the proceedings by a year, granting him the time he calculates he needs to finish the piece.
The way in which this happens - the flow of time suspended in the execution yard, everything in that final instant a frozen tableau, the sergeant’s arm held high in a final command, the shadow of a bee on a courtyard flagstone - initially bewilders Hladik. “He realised he was paralysed. Not a sound reached him from the stricken world. He thought: I’m in hell, I’m dead. He thought: I’ve gone mad. He thought: Time has come to a halt.” Gradually his confusion gives way to the realisation that he has been given the time in which to finish his work. “German lead would kill him, at the determined hour, but in his mind a year would elapse between the command to fire and its execution. From perplexity he passed to stupor, from stupor to resignation, from resignation to sudden gratitude.”
A psychological interpretation of this story might be that all things finished and unfinished flashed before his eyes in that irrevocable final moment before death, that all issues, including his unrealised dreams, were resolved at that wall of finality. But the story also challenges the deepest notions of art and its relationship to ego. Should Hladik have been satisfied because his masterpiece was finished and made perfect, or did it require an audience to exist as art? Can a text be said to exist until it can be read? If the miracle was secret, was it a miracle at all?
There’s a resonance between this beautiful story and Julian Schnabel’s equally beautiful The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (released nationally on 14 February). In the film, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), trapped, mute, immobile in just such a frozen space as Hladik’s, finds a way of completing the work of art - the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - that circumstance has thrust upon him. The difference is that Bauby finds a way of getting it over the wall to the outside world. Based fairly faithfully on the real Bauby’s 1997 memoir, Schnabel’s film achieves the remarkable feat of turning a purely cerebral document of claustrophobia, determination and, implausibly, joy into a stunning visual corollary of those qualities.
Bauby was 41, good-looking, the debonair editor of French Elle, when, as a result of a massive stroke, he suffered the rare condition known as locked-in syndrome, in which the brain stem is compromised and the brain cannot give instructions to the rest of the body. In Bauby’s case, only his left eyelid was functional. His brain worked perfectly: he could see, hear, understand, remember. With the help of nurses at the Berck Maritime Hospital, on the north coast of France, he developed a way of communicating, laboriously slowly, with an eye-blinking semaphore that responded to letters of the alphabet being read in a certain sequence over and over again, a letter at a time, a blink for when the correct letter was reached. In this way, a kind of geological-speed dictation, he wrote his book. The mind boggles at how frustrating this must have been: the equivalent, perhaps, of a starving person preparing a meal while limited to one slice of the knife per minute. Bauby died of his condition ten days after the book was published; we can assume that, like Jaromir Hladik in the Borges story, he was satisfied it was complete.
Amalric, faithfully reproducing Bauby in his immobility, has little to do in the way of acting for the bulk of the film, other than in some flashback scenes of life before the stroke. But it is intriguing what can go on in a single eye, in extreme close-up; and the voiceover, which lifts a lot from the book, is full of distilled emotion. Here, more than in any other film I can think of, the audience gains access to a rich inner life through language. It is poetic in its abstraction, because the physical circumstances - Bauby’s utter imprisonment - are so extreme. Yet it’s an illusion of sorts: the film’s dominant mode is not interior monologue, at least not in the way that the book makes us feel so dramatically that we are inside Bauby’s head. Schnabel has created an extraordinary visual language, a kind of light-saturated dreamscape that seems to capture perfectly the heightened world of a man reborn as an eye. Schnabel yokes the film’s palette (the brilliant cinematography is by Janusz Kaminski) to the voiceover to give the story its heart-wrenching momentum.
Schnabel the director, it seems, allows a great deal of Schnabel the painter into the film-making process. The attempt to create his subject’s reality gives him unusual freedom to wield the camera impressionistically, and the first 40 or 50 minutes are almost entirely seen from Bauby’s point-of-view. This is not as gruelling as it sounds, though it vividly depicts the intense frustration of being at the mercy of the able-bodied. Schnabel has said, “All he has is his eye. If he doesn’t want to hear what people are saying, he can look away. And then I thought, OK, I can cut people’s heads off because he can’t see.” He makes great use of the swing-and-tilt lens, where part of the image is in focus and part out-of-focus. The effect is hypnotic. Elsewhere the camera is overexposed, off-centre or moves jerkily, in keeping with a sudden shift of the eyeball; and the punctuation of the blink, of the lens opening and closing (“one blink for yes, two blinks for no”) is ever present. Faces constantly loom in front, investigating us. Halfway through the film it comes as a liberation when we finally see Bauby fully, from a third-person perspective. The film opens out, visually and narratively, from there. We become the observer, not the observed, and suddenly there is room to breathe.
Emmanuelle Seigneur, as Bauby’s wife, is good, but it is Marie-Josée Croze, as the speech therapist who becomes his bridge to the world, who is terrific, as is Anne Consigny as Nurse Claude, the sexy Christian physical therapist whose beauty reminds Bauby of all that he has lost in the sensual world. (We gather he was something of a Lothario.) There’s a standout late-career performance from Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father, his own confrontation with mortality heightened by the fear his son’s predicament excites in him. And in a small role, the wonderful French character actor Niels Arestrup is the compassionate Pierre Roussin, who by a quirk of fate became a hostage in Beirut for four years after Bauby had given up, to Roussin, his seat on a plane. Emerging from his own trauma, Roussin comes to offer solace to Bauby. “I was kept in a tiny dark cell,” he says. “It was very hard to breathe. I called it my tomb.” Meanwhile, in the humorous voiceover, Bauby is feeling guilty for not having called the guy after he was released.
“I survived by clinging to what makes me human,” Roussin continues. “I had no choice. It was all I had left, same as you.” Whatever it might be, this question of being human, it is pared back to fundamentals here. Like the book, the film doesn’t delve into the complexities of the infidelities and marriage break-up that preceded the stroke, for example, although without that stroke Bauby would have been just another French cad trading in his wife for a younger model; but this is because it’s so resolutely elemental. There is little depth to the relationships because the film is about the existential terror of the here-and-now, rather than the finer details of existence. Nonetheless, we catch a glimpse of Bauby’s guilt when he says, “Now I can never make amends. Never.”
The Diving Bell is worth seeing simply for the serene formality of its experimentation. Yet there are many more reasons to see it. It’s airy and light and exquisite to look at, yet tenderly haunting. “I wanted this film to be a tool, like his book, a self-help device that can help you handle your own death,” said Schnabel. “It is his last window on the world.” Schnabel achieves a depiction, in celluloid, of the isolation of the human condition that is oddly similar to what Beckett did on the stage in Not I, that single mouth in utter blackness. It allows him to play with pure image, the pure concept of the imagination, and to isolate the physical and mental gaps between people, by reducing the portal of communication to that tiny little window - and how apt, for cinema, that it’s the eye.
Bauby says, in voiceover: “My head weighs a ton, my whole body is encased in a kind of diving suit. My task is now to write the motionless travel notes from a castaway on the shores of loneliness.” Schnabel has made elegant motion out of these notes. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely / the world offers itself to your imagination.” Bauby seems to second this: “Today my life feels like a string of near misses, moments of happiness I let drift away. Did the harsh light of disaster make me find my true nature? Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralysed - my imagination and my memory.” Bauby is entirely dependent on others to stay alive. But these two things, his only possessions, endow him with a kind of heroic, last-gasp independence.
In ‘The Secret Miracle’, Jaromir Hladik, finishing his masterpiece inside his head in the year granted to him between Aim! and Fire!, “did not work for posterity, nor even for God, of whose literary preferences he possessed scant knowledge”. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby is pressed into just such a moment, between the entirety of his past life and the great unknown before him. For any of us, that’s the present; Borges and Schnabel just happen to investigate extreme versions of it. How to make it bigger? they ask. How to make it count? Bauby might not know the answer, but he has an idea of where to begin. When he starts to get the hang of the system through which he will communicate his life, his thoughts and his book, the first phrase he blinks out, letter by letter, to one of the nurses, is a simple and practical one: “Don’t panic.”
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