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In unsentimental 'Diving Bell,' still waters run deep in a jerk's life

What a wonderful country France is. Your mistress is only slightly more gorgeous than your wife, your speech therapist is another knockout, and so is your physical therapist.

What a wonderful country France is.

Your mistress is only slightly more gorgeous than your wife, your speech therapist is another knockout, and so is your physical therapist.

Certainly it's the place to be, even, or especially, if the only thing you can move is your left eyelid.

So we learn in "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly," the true story of a wealthy, urbane Frenchman (Mathieu Almaric) struck down in the prime of life by a stroke that leaves him paralyzed but mentally as acute as ever.

For Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do to his friends), this means that the strengths and flaws that marked his interior life as a Paris bigshot (editor French Elle) are intact. And he can be, pardonnez-moi, kind of a jerk. Funny, full of life and more than a little full of himself.

His selfishness, oddly enough, is what gives "Diving Bell" its special status among malady movies - it steers clear of the redemption/improvement arc that defines the genre, and its warts-and-all approach keeps it human.

This is undoubtedly one reason why the medical/rehab specialists have seized upon the movie as a best-of-breed example - it's tough and unsentimental, presented and photographed in a way to give patients an idea of what the recovery (or lack of recovery) process is like.

Perspective is key - director (and painter) Julian Schnabel gives us a view of what life looks and feels like to the confined Bauby, who can control only his left eye. The blinkered POV, faces moving in and out of view, his fixed gaze at a blowing curtain, a vase of flowers - it goes past empathy and almost literally inside the patient's head.

Bauby uses his sense of humor to combat his natural depression, worsened by the unconscious thoughtlessness and arrogance of doctors and visitors. But it's a battle he doesn't always win. He uses the complex process of learning to tap out messages with his eyelids (nicely conveyed here) to communicate a wish to die.

This depression lifts, and Bauby gradually begins to accept friends and family back into his life (his wife is not actually his wife; they have children, but never married). As Bauby's own spirit is restored, Schnabel opens the movie - to flights of imagination, flashbacks and traditional framing. The effect is non-narrative, impressionistic, but it all makes sense in Schnabel's hands. Bauby decides to use his only available means of expression as a pathway to art, and signs a contract to write a lyrical memoir (also called "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," it became an international bestseller).

Still, he does not change. His common-law wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) is utterly devoted to his care and well-being, but Bauby remains stubbornly in love with the girlfriend (Marina Hands), who can't bring herself to see him in a "diminished" state. This leads to a particularly uncomfortable scene: Bauby receives a phone call from the younger woman, and Seigner's character, as bedside intermediary, is forced to translate Bauby's thoughts.

The guy's nothing if not honest, and that gives "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly" its candid, authentic feel. The grave reality of Bauby's situation is never far away - Bauby remembers his last days with his father (Max Von Sydow), and the father's grief at his son's lost vitality is hard to watch. But well worth watching. *

Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Jon Kilik, directed by Julian Schnabel, written by Ronald Harwood, music by Paul Canteron, distributed by Miramax Films.