The opening scene of "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly" may have you wondering whether the theater projector is on the fritz. The image is out of focus, shaky, hard to comprehend. And this goes on for the first half hour of the brilliant film by self-proclaimed artiste Julian Schnabel.
The visual cacophony represents the world of stroke victim Jean-Dominique Bauby (Matthieu Amalric), jet-set editor of Elle fashion magazine, who in his early 40's was slammed with a devastating cardiovascular accident. It resulted in the rare disability called, "Locked-in Syndrome," allowing Bauby to think lucidly while imprisoned in his paralyzed body… paralyzed, except for his left eyelid.
We hear his often sarcastically liberating thoughts in the form of an ongoing commentary, which slowly explains his horrific dilemma and provides pointed observations about doctors, nurses, therapists and family members. His two speech therapists, Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), and Claude (Anne Consigny), are quite beautiful, at first making life even harder for the playboy ("It's not fair!" he mentally exclaims).
However, Henriette devises a painstakingly effective way for Bauby to communicate by blinking his left eye (one blink, "Yes;" two blinks, "No") as she reads the most used letters of the alphabet. Applying this technique, he embarks on an ambitious project: composing his memoir, which becomes an international bestseller and the basis for this film. Equally as ambitious is the cinematic machinations that Schnabel crafts for the film version of the book adapted by Ronald Harwood. Like it or not, we are put into the living hell of an almost complete paralytic ("Diving Bell"), yet witness his soaring imagination ("Butterfly"), which cannot be contained.
Without direct dialogue, Bauby manages a number of powerfully moving confrontations with his ex-wife Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), girlfriend Josephine (Marina Hands) and shutin father Papinou (Max von Sydow). The one involving Josephine has the further complication of an intimate phone conversation because she cruelly refuses to come to the hospital ("I want to remember you as you were")… made meaner when Céline must act as Bauby's blink interpreter.
A recent past memory of Papinou has Jean-Dominique shaving his father, unknowing that the tables will soon be turned. Yet, on the phone, Dad tearfully remarks that they are both shut-ins within different prisons.
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a movie not to be missed. What's unfortunate is that Jean-Dominique Bauby did. He died 10 days after the publication of his book.