The opening minutes of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" are a staggering blur. The images drift in and out of focus. They flash into view then fade out. The camera isn't looking for something to look at. It's seeing, not watching, trying to get its bearings but not doing very well: all the blinking, blackouts and dissolves; the rheumy, streaking light, the blobby human faces, crisp one second, vague the next, stretched, undulating, and crowding what was already a limited field of vision (this all happens from a fixed point of view). Under these phantasmagoric circumstances, the camera isn't just a camera. It's a personification, and the person whose sight we've been experiencing has, in a sense, been reborn.
In December 1995, Jean-Domi nique "Jean-Do" Bauby, the editor of French Elle, suffered a stroke that left him in a coma. At 43, he was young and relatively healthy. After 20 days, he woke up paralyzed in a hospital room in the northern seaside town of Berck-sur-Mer, his left eye being his only movable part. Amazingly, though, his mind and hearing were fully intact. The condition was something called Locked-in Syndrome, where a fully cognitive patient remains incarcerated within his body.
Bauby eventually found a form of salvation and wrote "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a memoir whose guiding metaphors contemplated confinement and liberation, and were lightly dusted with Proust. The painter and epicure Julian Schnabel has appropriated those metaphors; and flanked by the inspired cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, and the editor, Juliette Welfling, he uses Bauby's good eye as a window to his soul.
It takes Bauby himself a little longer to achieve that state of grace. Played by the typically resourceful Mathieu Amalric, Bauby fills the soundtrack with his thoughts. He is angry and sad and resides in a state of near-chronic horniness (the hospital's female staff bend over his bed enough for him to ogle their breasts). He turns philosophically self-critical: Did the accident just reduce me to the man I truly am? It's hard for him to accept this rebirth, what with his pop-eye and down-turned mouth, his confinement to beds and wheelchairs. Initially, he pooh-poohs the introduction of a system of communication whereby he "speaks" by alphabet. His speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) reads a sequence of letters, arranged according to their frequency of use.
When she - or whoever's with him - arrives at a desired letter, Bauby blinks. This seems laborious. But he comes to accept the labor as a lifeline. And we come to hear the letters ("E-S-A-R-I-N-T-U-L") as a sort of musical cryptogram. If he's blinking, he wants to live. The reading of those letters also culminates in suspenseful emotional agony during one sequence with Bauby, the mother of his three children (Emmanuelle Seigner), and a wavering girlfriend (Agathe de la Fontaine).
"Diving Bell" in many ways is a prison movie about transcending confinement. And Bauby embraces the reality that - as banal as it sounds - his imagination can set him free. He decides to write a book, and the publisher sends over Claude (Anne Cosigny) to take painstaking dictation. (Schnabel has seen to it that the loveliest women assist Bauby; it's bedside Elle.) Soon there are flashbacks to life with Bauby's ailing father (Max von Sydow) and an erotic daydream about an oyster dinner at Le Duc with Claude.
Ronald Harwood's adaptation of the memoir strikes a patient balance between pathos and comedy. But Schnabel, whose previous movie was "Before Night Falls" about the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, is content to accentuate the sentimental. As unique as Bauby's condition was and as brilliantly as Schnabel and his crew bring Bauby's transcendence of it to life, thematically, the film is nothing terribly original. This is triumph-of-the-human-spirit stuff. You might even want to call the movie "My Left Eye." But who said the human spirit had to be groundbreaking? Of course, if a movie about the human spirit doesn't do it for you, "The Diving Bell" thoroughly doubles as a movie about the cinematic spirit.
As a nifty complement to the pupil Luis Buñuel notoriously slashed open in 1929's "Un Chien Andalou," Schnabel shows Bauby's right eye being sewn shut - from the eye's perspective. Later, when the camera looks up into the Paris afternoon sky from a speeding convertible, it feels like flying. Schnabel admirably resists turning the film into something severely fashionable. The visual loveliness is grounded in Bauby's own vacillations between fear and exuberance.
His ruminations free the movie to soar kaleidoscopically over his fantasies. We get brief passages of butterflies slipping from cocoons and flitting among flowers, and aerial leaps over cliffs. If Bauby can go anywhere or be anybody - a matador, a surfer, Burt Lancaster on the beach in "From Here to Eternity," Bauby's own glamorous pre-stroke self - the movie can make that happen. He even calls the majestic view from one of the hospital landings his Cinecittà, after the legendary Italian film studio. The movie is a Cinecittà of the mind.