Jean-Dominique Bauby, the sybaritic, sophisticated, womanizing editor of French Elle, was 43 when he suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed with "locked-in syndrome." This man of the world was suddenly a prisoner in his own immobile body. Only one eye worked, his left, which he could blink—and that blink proved his lifeline to the outside world. It enabled him to say yes and no, and over a period of 14 months he composed, one letter at a time, a best-selling memoir called "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which Julian Schnabel has turned into a stunning film—a moving demonstration of the power of one man's imagination to transcend the limits of his body.
You may think you've seen one too many "uplifting" tales of handicapped heroes overcoming adversity: they are a staple of our therapeutically inclined culture. Leaving aside "My Left Foot," most of these movies are more earnest than artful, and they go down like medicine. "Diving Bell" is something else: ravishing to look at, mercifully unsentimental, blissfully avoiding almost every cliché of the genre. Schnabel, screenwriter Ronald Harwood (whose English-language dialogue was translated into French) and Spielberg's great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have found a way to take us inside Bauby's mind—his memories, his fantasies, his loves and lusts—transforming a story of physical entrapment and spiritual renewal into exhilarating images.
At first, we can see only what "Jean-Do" (Matthieu Amalric) can: the camera is his eye, and we share his blurry, confused perception—and his claustrophobia and terror—as doctors and nurses hover over him, discussing his case, testing his responses, breaking the dire news. But even before the movie releases us into Bauby's past, or gives us a third-person view of his distorted face, the painterly, slightly washed-out beauty of Schnabel's images holds us spellbound.
The artist-director, a world-class sensualist himself, takes the almost comical liberty of casting great beauties in every female part, not just the mother of Bauby's two sons (Emmanuelle Seigner) or a former lover with whom he took a memorable trip to Lourdes (Marina Hands), but, more of a stretch, his two devoted therapists Marie (Olatz Lopez Garmendia, the director's wife) and Henriette (Marie-Jos?e Croze), the speech therapist who devised the system that enabled Bauby to communicate. They are also, let me be quick to add, superb and subtle actors. The turning point comes when Bauby renounces self-pity and discovers the freedom unleashed by his memory. He decides to write a book, and his publisher sends an assistant (Anne Consigny) from Paris to take down his words. She, too, is a knockout.
Amalric, who's always had a live-wire electricity, was a brilliant choice for Bauby: he can radiate intensity without moving a muscle. But every role has been juicily cast: Max von Sydow as Jean-Do's aged father, who allows his son to shave him in an unforgettable flashback; Niels Arestrup as a colleague whose visit to the patient evokes guilty memories: Bauby once generously offered the visitor his seat on a flight to Beirut—and the man was taken hostage by terrorists. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" keeps opening up, its structure mimicking the awakening of its extraordinary protagonist's mind. In the face of death, he comes most fully alive.