By coincidence, I have just watched two movies with Max von Sydow in them less than 12 hours apart. Not much of a coincidence—though I’m always glad to see Max von Sydow. Slightly more interesting is that both movies make use of the first-person POV camera shot. One of the movies was Dune, which briefly takes the point of view of the assassin’s floating hunter-seeker needle as it sniffs out Kyle MacLachlan. For all the fetishistic extreme close-ups of needles out there in drug movies, this is the only shot I can think of from the needle’s perspective.
The second movie was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which I will henceforth refer to by its French title
Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, because even if you don’t speak French you can still see that scaphandre is a lovely word. Scaphandre is director Julian Schnabel’s film adaptation of the memoir of the same name by former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who died 10 days after its publication in 1997. In December 1995, Bauby suffered a stroke that left him unable to move any part of his body except his left eyelid. As he convalesced, he communicated the entire text one letter at a time by memorizing a day’s worth of dictation at a time and blinking after the letter he wanted while an assistant read down the choices in a frequency-of-use alphabet. Can you imagine? Bauby’s was an exceptionally rare condition, thank goodness. Rare enough to give Oliver Sacks a run for his money, and that certainly makes for an intriguing film premise.
It didn’t occur to me until the movie started that Scaphandre might actually be told completely from Bauby’s limited point of view, through his one good eye. Actually, at the beginning he has two eyes, but the doctor doesn’t like the look of one of them and sutures it closed to prevent corneal infection. Less than 10 minutes into Scaphandre, the viewer already finds this a scary prospect. Can we/he see out of the other eye? What if even that hair’s-breadth line of communication is severed? The suturing feels rather like being sewn into a canvas sack to be tipped overboard into pinkish oblivion.
Now, I could list many favorite POV shots from other movies, but the idea of sitting through an entire feature filmed from this perspective—blinks and everything—wasn’t very appealing at first. Stunts like that are hard to pull off, just as some conceits in literature are hard to sustain for anything longer than a short story without diminishing returns. In anticipating Scaphandre, in fact, I’d been thinking almost exclusively in literary terms and precedents.
Time’s Arrow, for one, is a 1992 novella by Martin Amis in which the Holocaust is lived backwards through a perplexed voice that awakens in the mind of a Nazi doctor at the moment of his death. Hospitals are abattoirs and digestion is weird and scary when considered in reverse order, while the business of making people out of smoke and shipping them off to cities and villages seems noble and altruistic.
And then, of course, there’s Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, about a blind, deaf, mute and limbless World War I casualty lying in a hospital bed struggling to articulate a rather obvious wish to die to the very people congratulating themselves for keeping him alive. What could possibly be more harrowing or heartbreaking than Johnny Got His Gun? Like the trapped voice in Trumbo’s book, Bauby’s interior monologue is only audible to those who can’t help him: the viewers. But at least Bauby can bat an eyelash, and attractive speech therapists start waving alphabet cards in his face almost the second he wakes up. Evidently the medical establishment has learned its lesson from Trumbo: If you’re going to keep someone alive under extraordinary and imprisoning circumstances, at least be prepared to take dictation.
By the time I surrendered to Scaphandre’s limited point of view, there was suddenly no need. After about 15 minutes, timidly at first and then quite openly, unattributed perspectives start creeping into the picture. Having warmed to the idea of being stuck inside Bauby’s head for two hours, I found the scenes outside his head less interesting and possibly unnecessary as viewed from some omnipotent bystander. Far more effective are the glimpses Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) gets of himself reflected off windows and other polished surfaces
Without the exterior perspectives, the movie might have been an admirable but oppressive exercise in confinement. With them, it forfeits some of its power and dilutes what might otherwise have been a potent elixir of memory, fantasy, daydream and delirium filtered through a single, possibly unreliable sensory organ. When the camera does show Bauby’s palsied face, lip drooping to one side like a curl of melted candle wax, the sagging features contrast sharply with the awareness behind the eyes. But always and everywhere these agentless third-person shots break the spell of solipsism the director tries so hard to cast. I liked Le Scaphandre et le Papillon okay, but it left me oddly unmoved and wishing Schnabel would have stayed inside looking out.