Few films have ever managed to place the audience inside a character's head as effectively as The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. The subject of Julian Schnabel's film hardly screams cinematic potential, telling as it does the tragic story of Jean-Dominique Bauby's near-total paralysis, but Schnabel has used the visual language of cinema to bring us as close as possible to an understanding of this experience from the patient's own unique perspective. In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played here by Mathieu Amalric), the 43 year-old editor of French magazine Elle, suffered a stroke and spent twenty days in a coma. When he finally awoke, he discovered he had been afflicted with a rare condition called Locked-in Syndrome, essentially making him a prisoner inside his own skin. Bauby could hear, see and think as before, but he could no longer speak or move his limbs, and the only muscle still under his control was his left eyelid. This was his sole method of communication, and through a painstaking process of blinking out words to be transcribed by an assistant, Jean-Dominique Bauby produced the memoir from which this film has been superbly adapted, a book that was published to widespread acclaim just two days before his death.
The opening moments of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are challenging and tense. Our view is obscured by bleached and blurry camerawork, with indistinct figures moving across the screen and leaning their faces in close. These scenes, with the clarity of image heightening and fading from shot to shot, are Schnabel's approximation of Bauby's introduction to his post-stroke life. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (working miracles throughout) places the camera where the central character's head should be, allowing us to only view what he could see from his restricted state, and the film's visuals gradually settle as Bauby's eyes become accustomed to the light of the outside world. For about half-hour, this is how we experience The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Schnabel places us right there inside Bauby's head – we hear his heartbeat, his heavy breathing and the thoughts he cannot give voice to – and the sense of claustrophobia this approach creates is almost stifling; but it's also an ingenious conceit which pays handsome dividends.
Sometimes a film employs a novel visual style which ultimately proves to be a meaningless gimmick – see current release Cloverfield, or rather don't, for evidence of that – but in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, our empathy with Bauby is deepened by the intimacy Schnabel allows us. We experience Bauby's new life as he comes to terms with it himself; sharing the indignity of being washed like a child, the frustration of being unable to communicate with people just inches away, or the horror of seeing his atrophied right eye being sewn shut to prevent infection. Eventually, we do see Bauby from the outside, our first sight of him occurring when he catches his own reflection in a window. "God, who's that?" he exclaims, shocked by his distorted features; "I look like something out of a vat of formaldehyde".
What would it be like to see an entire film from this perspective? It would probably be unwatchable, and after that discombobulating opening third, Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood wisely open the picture out, staging scenes from outside Bauby's point of view and including flashbacks to the character's previous life as a charismatic womaniser. As Bauby is portrayed by Mathieu Amalric, this is good news, for he is an actor whose best performances – such as in Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen – have been defined by his lively physicality and charm, and in these interludes he develops a fuller sense of Bauby's character. We see him as a gregarious, vain playboy, enjoying the fruits of his successful life, and neglecting the needs of his estranged wife (Emmanuelle Seigner) and children in the process, but the most effective scene is one in which Bauby visits his 92 year-old father (Max von Sydow) and helps him shave in a sequence shot with remarkable tenderness. In his own way, Bauby's father knows what it is to be trapped, he is unable to leave the apartment in his frail state, and one late scene broke my heart: when he calls the hospital to speak with his son, but is unable to find the right words. Von Sydow's reaction to the realisation that he will never again hear his son's voice is unbearably moving, and this great actor has rarely been so powerful in a role which amounts to just a few minutes of screen time.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has the ability to affect the viewer like that, and it touched me deeply at frequent intervals, but the film never lapses into sentimentality. It's a tough, honest and true picture, and whenever the film enters territory which might be considered maudlin or hackneyed, Schnabel takes us off on one of Bauby's internal flights of fancy, in which he imagines himself skiing again, or enjoying a sumptuous meal with his assistant (Anne Consigny), or even picturing himself as Marlon Brando. "I can imagine anything I want", Bauby muses, but this desire to make the most of his current state only occurs after a long and difficult journey. When his nurse Henriette (the wonderful Marie-Josée Croze) first comes to Bauby with the alphabet-blinking system he'll use to communicate, one of the earliest phrases he spells out is "I want to die", but his gradual acceptance of this method and his decision to embrace the possibilities it presents is inspiring. The frequent sight of Henriette going through the alphabet one letter at a time and stopping to jot down Bauby's choice every time he blinks could easily have grown tedious, but Schnabel turns it into a fascinating and hypnotic ritual (helped in no small part by the soothing tone of Croze's delivery).
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has flashes of welcome humour, such as the immobile Bauby groaning "it's not fair!" as a beautiful speech therapist (Olatz López Garmendia) demonstrates tongue exercises right in front of his face, or the visit of a friend (Isaach De Bankolé) who keeps forgetting to watch Bauby's eye as he reads from the alphabet card. But the most impressive aspect of Schnabel's handling of this story is the film's emotional dexterity; it plunges us deep into the world of this unfortunate man, allowing us to feel his outrage and self-pity, and then it sweeps us along as Bauby learns to find a new sense of life beyond the confines of his own body. This is the third film Schnabel has made – after 1996's Basquiat and 2000's Before Night Falls – but it is the first time he has employed his own sense of artistry to really give us experience worlds apart from the standard true-life tale. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a film about a man suffering from an unimaginable disability and a premature death, but it's also one of the year's most uplifting and exhilarating cinematic experiences. Julian Schnabel has tackled Jean-Dominique Bauby's story with the honesty and imagination it deserves, and in doing so he has set his movie free.