The notion of sitting through an entire movie about a paralyzed man who can move just one eyelid—and, eventually, gurgle a little—is not a promising one. So despite the rapturous reviews the movie had been receiving, I went into the theater deeply skeptical. By the time I left, I was convinced global warming could be reversed (uh, there's this fantastic image? in the closing credits? of a glacier reconstituting itself? never mind) and I felt like several hundred thousand dollars (uh, it's set in France? and the euro is much stronger than the dollar right now? never mind). This adaptation of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir of a paralyzed man, is an exercise in weighty optimism, and in exhilarating cynicism. It's a little too much, but it's exactly what you needed.
The film opens with the unfocused, uncomprehending gaze of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), former editor of the French Elle, who was instantly and completely paralyzed from his toes all the way past his grimacing mouth. We can't see his face yet. The audience is locked in to the limited field of the patient's gaze—and so we are preserved, like Jean-Do (as he is known to his friends), from the horror of his disfigurement. Alongside Jean-Do, we see the light coming through the curtains and the bundle of roses by his bedside; we hear his acerbic thoughts and feel his frustration that he can't express them. But it isn't only that we are like the paralyzed man: He is also like us. Mute, at the mercy of other people to wheel us in front of novel sights, dependent on them to tell us stories—this is the description of a moviegoer, except Jean-Do's state is permanent and involuntary. Is this how the curt, despondent Jean-Do wins us over so quickly?
He's funny, too. After he convinces the doctors he's awake and sentient, Jean-Do begins a difficult project of rehabilitation, made more tolerable by the fact that both his physical therapist (Olatz López Garmendia) and his speech therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) are fetching. He receives visitors, who inform him that all of Paris has heard he's a vegetable. "What kind of vegetable?" he wonders in voiceover. "A carrot? A potato? A cornichon?"
Not everything is so cute. Henriette, the speech therapist, teaches Jean-Do how to spell out sentences by blinking his one good eye as she cycles quickly through the letters of the French alphabet, ordered from most commonly used to least. The first thing he spells is "I want to die." Henriette freaks out. "It's disrespectful; it's obscene!" she screams in our faces—remember, we're still locked into Jean-Do's eye socket. She apologizes, but the tension and hurt remains. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly scrupulously avoids the syrupy and maudlin; what's left is difficult to watch.
The '80s art star Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) directs, and he kindly supplies us—and Jean-Do—with beauty to salve the pain. As Jean-Do realizes he can escape the confines of his body through the twin hatches of memory and imagination, the film gets drunk on visuals. (The cinematographer is Janusz Kaminski.) There's the entrancing image of a woman's hair skittering over the camera lens like some kind of brunette sea anemone. There's a fantastical vision of the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, who founded Jean-Do's hospital in the 1860s for tubercular children. There's the ersatz glory of a glowing plastic Virgin Mary purchased from a huckster at Lourdes. If Schnabel's brand of supersaturated loveliness seems conventional, that's all right. We're in the mind of a fashion magazine editor, after all. We're savoring the things Jean-Do misses, and everything he misses is colored by desire.
But what's more significant than the visual style of this film is the way Schnabel can take a static sequence—almost a painting, really, with a soundtrack—and make it shake with emotion. It's the essential problem of a movie about a paralyzed man, and Schnabel nails it. There's a scene where Jean-Do asks his estranged wife, Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), to read him the letter board so he can take a phone call. It's the weekend; his usual staff isn't available. The person on the other side is Jean-Do's mistress. Céline agrees. The conversation is needy and vicious and loving. The three of them get through it. You the audience are still stuck with Jean-Do's narrow point of view, boring straight ahead, but suddenly your empathy has to stretch farther than that. It hurts. And it is gorgeous filmmaking.