The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a visionary celebration of language, women, food, memory, the imagination, the creative impulse, and (somewhat strangely) all the wonderful, life-affirming things you could be doing instead of watching movies. Through some daring subjective camerawork and many beautifully nuanced performances, Julian Schnabel's new biopic is genuinely inspirational.
After an opening-titles montage of X-ray pictures scored to a French version of "Beyond the Sea," the film opens when Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominic Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) awakens from a three-week coma. And for 15 gorgeous, startling minutes, we see the world entirely from Bauby's extremely and mysteriously limited point of view. Like him, we are confused and disoriented: It is hard to separate dreams from flashbacks, and the random visits by medical professionals only increase the uncertainty and anxiety. Gradually, Bauby and the audience learn that he has suffered a massive stroke, leaving him a completely paralyzed victim of "locked-in syndrome." His mind is intact, but his body is almost totally immobile.
This opening sequence is as profound an examination of the limitations of subjectivity as Hitchcock's Rear Window. For the first time in a long while, moviegoers are reminded of the sheer wonder of seeing things: hallways, curtains, windows, sunlight, human faces. This fragility of vision is most powerful in the scene when Bauby's right eye is sewn shut. As the screen slowly changes to pinkish-black, the effect is invasive and upsetting; it's like an improbable reverse shot from the notorious eye-slashing opening sequence of Un Chien Andalou.
Eventually, Bauby's range of motion is limited to his left eye. But after some dark nights of the soul and a dressing-down by his nurse Henriette (a radiant Marie-Josée Croze), he comes to terms with his new existence and embarks on writing a memoir of his experiences. The ingenious system of communication (and later, dictation) Henriette devises is simple, effective, and agonizingly slow. At times, you'll feel like you're trapped in a spelling bee at a French elementary school, but struggle and patience are essential to conveying Bauby's willpower and lust for life.
Amalric — who also appears as a healthy Bauby in several important flashbacks — delivers a performance of great delicacy and wit. And his wit energizes the film. Bauby's observant, ironic voiceover is disarmingly, consistently funny, especially in one scene when he silently begs for mercy as a gorgeous speech therapist, in an attempt to teach him how to swallow, lolls her tongue around her mouth just inches from his face. In another scene, he chastises Henriette when she takes offense at some wisecracks at Bauby's expense. He laughs loudly at the remarks: "Ah, Henriette," he sighs, "you have no sense of humor."
This rueful joy at the ways of the world is also expressed through some flashbacks showing Bauby's relationship with his ailing father (Max von Sydow). Von Sydow, given a chance to really act after years of playing demonic heavies in Hollywood blockbusters, does not waste the opportunity. His sad, graceful performance is entirely in tune with this delicate, wondrous work.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Opening Friday, January 18th