In his brilliant new film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
, painter/sculptor/director Schnabel (Basquiat
, Before Night Falls
) defies dozens of moviemaking conventions to tell the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby. Which makes sense considering just how unconventional Bauby’s story is. In 1995, at the age of 45, the French writer and editor of Elle
magazine (French edition) suffered a massive stroke that left him with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome. He retained his ability to hear and understand and remember, but as far as the world was concerned, Bauby became little more than a vegetable with an impressive résumé: He was unable to speak and was completely paralyzed from top to toe, save for his left eye. I know this may sound like a description for the dullest protagonist in motion-picture history, but Bauby was able to work miracles with that eye. In just two years, using a dictation system developed by his speech therapist that involved an adjusted alphabet and repetitive blinking, Bauby managed to write a 150-page memoir full of wit and imagination that went on to become a bestseller. (Meanwhile, with my two perfectly good eyes and able body, I’m struggling to write a 400-word movie review.) Bauby’s story presents innumerable hurdles for a filmmaker, but artist-turned-filmmaker Schnabel has made a career out of defying expectations and pushing boundaries, and he uses all the considerable skills at his disposal (among them a stunning visual sense that blurs the line between experience and memory, between desire and reality; a bottomless well of curiosity about the nature of human creativity; and a healthy sense of cynicism) to create an original world that exists almost entirely inside his protagonist’s head and that’s equal parts reverie, despair, and social experiment. His Bauby (Amalric) is no pity case; he’s a sophisticated ironist aware of the confusion and fear he engenders in those around him, and his memoir is a testament to human ingenuity and the beauty that can be found in resignation. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
could easily have tipped over into melodrama, but Schnabel is too much an artist to let that happen; he realizes that in order to make his hero truly substantial, and not just sympathetic, he has to present him as an ordinary man making the best of extraordinarily lousy circumstances. By doing so he’s created a character we not only marvel at but identify with. If there’s a better example of the miraculous stubbornness of otherwise-despairing humanity than a paralyzed man leering at his nurse’s cleavage, I can’t imagine what it is.