It wouldn’t seem easy to make an incredibly moving film about immobility, but Julian Schnabel has managed the feat beautifully in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” a remarkably fluent and genuinely uplifting picture about a paralyzed man who learns to communicate by using the one part of his body that still works—his left eye—by blinking as the alphabet is recited to him to indicate the letters of words he wants his listener to transcribe. Based on the 1997 book by the late Jean-Dominique Bauby—the taste-making editor of Elle magazine who was reduced in his early forties by a stroke to the “locked-in” syndrome depicted here, in which a fully functioning mind is trapped in a totally incapacitated body (and actually used that laborious blinking process to produce the book)—it’s especially notable not only for contriving imaginative cinematic ways to tell a story that on the face of it is uncinematic, but for doing so without becoming mawkish or melodramatic.
The film essentially takes us through Bauby’s journey from suicidal despair over his condition to grudging acceptance and final a sort of intellectual and spiritual regeneration, but does so while maintaining a sense of moral and emotional complexity rather than smoothing things out into a tight, easy narrative. Its initial reels are almost experimental in their technique, using gritty film stock, blurred lenses and opaque compositions and jittery camera attitudes to show us the world from the protagonist’s limited perspective as he regains consciousness in the hospital, where doctors and nurses inform him of his condition, and comments—with sly humor as well as bitterness—on it.
But gradually Janusz Kaminski’s agile cinematography takes us outside his viewpoint to show him to us from the outside, as it were, in the person of the soulfully immobile Mathieu Amalric. We’re introduced to his wife Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner) and children Theophile (Theo Sampaio) and Celeste (Fiorella Campanella), as well as to Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), the nurse therapist who teaches him the mode of communication that he’ll ultimately utilize to dictate his book to transcriber Claude (Anne Consigny). At further remove we meet Bauby’s aged, house-ridden father (Max Von Sydow) and, in flashback, his mistress Josephine Marina Hands), who eventually phones him (a call awkwardly conveyed by his wife) but is too distressed actually to visit.
Those flashbacks—and some wonderful fantasies—amount to the “butterfly” section of the picture, through which Bauby escapes the confinement of his “diving bell” perspective. They include sequences involving touching visits with his father (in one of which he gives the old man a shave), reminiscences about a friend (Neils Arestrup) to whom he once gave his airline seat (with unforeseen consequences) and travels with Josephine, as well as a poignant recreation of his stroke, which he suffered driving with a terrified Theophile. There are also outings to the beach with his family, an incredibly poignant phone conversation between him and his father, a wonderfully lush moment when he imagines the hospital as it was at the time of its original imperial creation, and another dream in which he visualizes himself out in a fine restaurant, and not alone (and how right the music is in that sequence—it’s Nelson Riddle’s “Love Theme from Lolita”).
All of which should indicate that this is no solemn, calculating tearjerker but a marvelously rich and fluid evocation of Bauby’s interior and exterior life, as he experienced and related it. Amalric does wonders with a part that mostly demands a minimalist approach, and he’s abetted by a uniformly strong supporting cast, in which Seigner and Von Sydow stand out. Paul Cantelon’s subtle score nicely complements Kaminski’s supple, risk-taking camerawork, which successfully translates Schnabel’s pointedly artistic vision into screen reality.
The director’s previous films, “Basquiat” (1996) and “Before Night Falls” (2000) both seemed to this reviewer ambitious but pretentious failures, hobbled by their flamboyant technique rather than liberated by it. But on this third try Schnabel’s artsy bent serves the material rather than diluting it. His achievement is hardly as great as Bauby’s was, of course, but it’s quite considerable.