Jean-Dominique Bauby, the gallivanting magazine editor of French Elle, suffered a stroke at 43 that left him immobilized except for the ability to blink his left eye. His nurse devised a method of communication – each blink corresponded to a letter of the alphabet – and in 1997, three days before Bauby died at 45, he published a memoir, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," that has inspired millions.
It is this memoir that director Julian Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have so improbably and successfully transformed into a film. It opens from the point of view of Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) as he awakens from a three-week coma in a hospital bed. The brisk comings and goings of doctors and nurses, the mutterings in the room, the woeful visitors, the harsh light and murky shadows – all these affect us in the same hallucinatory way as they do Bauby. But we don't only see through his eyes; we also hear his lucid, barbarously funny inner voice commenting on his condition. It is a voice that only we are privy to.
We stay with Bauby's POV for a long stretch before the camera finally offers up a wider perspective on the action, at which point we no longer need the conceit of being in his head. His way of seeing and thinking has become our own.
Bauby is never sentimentalized. He's a philanderer who left his wife Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner) and two children a year before the stroke. Nevertheless, he engenders her devotion – she even translates correspondence between him and his mistress. It is largely because Bauby is so helpless and yet so revivifying that he inspires the lasting affections of his nurses, friends, and physicians.
I can think of only one other movie – "My Left Foot," with Daniel Day Lewis as Christy Brown – that so relentlessly entered the mind-set of someone this afflicted. Nothing in this movie matches Day Lewis's performance in that film, but then again, much the same could be said of every other film ever made. Amalric spends much of his screen time, except for occasional flashbacks and dream sequences, in a virtually paralyzed state, so his physical presence is severely limited.
And yet he somehow manages to convey a complete personality. (The script by Harwood, who is British, was translated into French to accommodate the French-speaking cast, whose dialogue is rendered with English subtitles.) Bauby's incremental progression from self-pitying sufferer to memoirist is entirely believable because at no time does he come across as a saint. He's that rarity in current movies – a human-scaled hero. His wit is heroic because it keeps him sane in a terrifying world.
The flashbacks are tellingly chosen – in particular, a marvelous scene between Bauby and his crotchety father, played by the great Max Von Sydow. We can see how father and son, who love each other deeply, have the same oblique orneriness. We need to see Bauby before his paralysis because only then can we understand just how much of his mind's mettle has been preserved.
Harwood's finely articulated screenplay provides a needed safety net for Schnabel, who directs in big, bold swatches. The film is a visual and auditory feast. I have only one nagging reservation: Bauby's life is cast in such inspirational terms that at times the filmmakers seem to be saying that art can only arise from affliction – that without his paralysis Bauby would not have had the power to create anything meaningful or lasting.
In a film that overwhelmingly avoids happy-faced pronouncements, this one sticks out.
Bauby may be the person we wish he could be in such dire straits, but Schnabel and Harwood generalize his triumph as a victory for all mankind, and that may be too weighty a spiritual burden for any one man to bear. Grade: A-
• Rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual content and some language.