In at least one way, Jean-Dominique Bauby resembles Christy Brown, the Irish poet and artist who transcended cerebral palsy by writing and painting with an appendage as dramatized in
My Left Foot
After a massive stroke in 1995 left Bauby almost completely paralyzed, he learned the telegraphic code for blinking out words.
Julian Schnabel's stunning, imaginative and, yes, transcendent film about the fashion magazine editor, a rake known as Jean-Do to his friends, well might be called My Left Eye.
Instead it's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, after the slender memoir Bauby dictated to his amanuensis in 1997. In it he describes that paralysis has left his body immobile, as if imprisoned in a giant, invisible diving bell. But his mind! Like a butterfly, free to fly, darting faster than the speed of thought, fluttering gracefully as his lashes.
As with Schnabel's prior two biopics, the expressionistic Before Night Falls about imprisoned Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, and Basquiat, about the drug-addicted painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, Diving Bell is about the drama of making art under physical and psychological constraints.
For the bravura first half hour, Schnabel films everything from Bauby's limited perspective. Before his eyes Jean-Do sees a blur, a white-coated blizzard of doctors, nurses and orderlies falling in front of his hospital bed.
His right eye is compromised. In a sequence literally and figuratively a wink to Luis Bunuel's and Salvador Dali's surrealist folly Un Chien Andalou, Schnabel films a sequence of eye surgery - from Jean-Do's point of view.
To the patient, who retains an impish and pitiless humor in the face of medical tragedy, the doc is darning his eye like a sock. The ophthalmologist can't hear him, but we can. And from the blur of images, we share Jean-Do's struggle for clarity of thought.
Mathieu Amalric, best known to American audiences as the intelligence profiteer in Munich, stars as Bauby, the lively mind burning bright in its guttering body. It's the performance of a comedian whose only instrument is the tone of his voice.
When he spies his post-stroke reflection for the first time in the glass window of the hospital corridor, left eye bulging, mouth drooping, he notes drily that he looks like something in a vat of formaldehyde. He looks like a morose Cyclops.
The body may be totaled, but the nimble mind purrs like a race-car engine. An army of therapists harness it by helping him communicate, letter by letter. A therapist recites the alphabet and he blinks when the correct one is spoken.
The film is more than laborious eye-blinking - it's also dazzling visually, its potent imagery conjured by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. But finally, Diving Bell is about something imperceptible: consciousness.
Perhaps prompted by painter Paul Klee's imperative that an artist's mission is to make visible the invisible, Schnabel finds visual correlatives for Jean-Do's thought. The director shows his subject in his wheelchair surrounded by the infinite ocean, the rising tide lapping the wheel treads.
The poet said that no man is an island. But Jean-Do is, a figure who in his playboy past enjoyed the freedom to detach from friends, mistresses, wife and family. Here is that detached man submerged by an emotional riptide. Behold him longing to reconnect.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Julian Schnabel. With Mathieu Amalric, Max von Sydow and Marie-Josée Croze. Distributed by Miramax. In French with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (nudity, sexual content, profanity)
Playing at: Ritz East and Showcase at the Ritz/NJEndText