Astonishingly beautiful and self-consciously so, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” about the stroke that paralyzed French Elle Editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, never ceases to remind you that it is a work of art.
The imagery from painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls”) is so arresting, and yet so artificial, it calls to mind the kind of advertising spread you’d see in the late Bauby’s fashion magazine. But you do have to give him and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”) credit for interpreting on screen a subject matter and a state of mind that wouldn’t seem inherently visual.
Bauby (the resourceful Mathieu Amalric), or “Jean-Do” as he was known among his jet-setting friends, found himself in a hospital one day at age 43, having awakened from a coma in a condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” His brain functioned quickly (and Amalric provides an interior monologue that’s by turns sarcastic, frustrated, vulnerable and hopeful), he just couldn’t move or speak. His only means of communication was his left eye, which he used to blink out his thoughts one painstaking letter at a time and eventually compose an entire book.
His memoir, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” was published a few days before his death in 1997. The title is a combination of the two metaphors Bauby used to describe his mental state: At first he felt as if he were trapped underwater, weighed down by a diving bell, but later found that his memory and imagination gave him the spiritual freedom of a butterfly.
Schnabel and Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer, eventually depict both of these sensations in surreal fashion, but first they take us inside Jean-Do’s constricted perspective through a dreamlike mix of light, shadow and wisps of color. We see the world through his eye (the other has been sewn shut) — including extreme close-ups of the strikingly attractive women who lean in to talk to him. They’re all there to help him, of course — they just happen to be gorgeous, which might seem fitting for a man who made his name as an arbiter of feminine style and sophistication. Then again, it might seem gratuitous. No one at this hospital looks like Nurse Ratched.
There’s Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), his bitter ex and the mother of his children who nonetheless remains loyal to him; his girlfriend, Ines (Agathe de la Fontaine), who appears in fleeting flashbacks; speech therapists Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) and Marie (Olatz Lopez Garamendia, Schnabel’s wife), who devise the system that allows him to communicate; and Claude (Anne Consigny), the publishing assistant who’s given the arduous task of taking his “dictation,” and who becomes his most intimate ally.
Certainly Schnabel and Harwood had to show us this process, in which the person trying to talk with Jean-Do goes through letters of the alphabet in the order they’re most frequently used, stopping when he blinks to signal the one he wants then starting all over again to get to the next letter. We had to see it to know how it works. But they go back to it so many times it becomes painfully repetitive and nearly sucks the life out of a film that’s meant to be a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit.
Jean-Do himself, as seen in his previous life, is a bit of an enigma — a party boy who seems to stand for nothing besides living the good life (though Amalric does share a lovely scene with Max von Sydow as his father). Just as quickly and unexpectedly as the stroke itself occurred, he decides within his stoic state that he wants to live, he wants to cooperate with his speech therapists, he wants to write a book about his unusual experience in the hope of helping others.
And just as quickly at the end, we learn that he’s gone. But that’s awfully pretty, too.