Great books are notoriously resistant to adaptation, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby's slim and elegant memoir, is indisputably a great book. It's slim for a reason: Paralyzed from head to toe and unable to speak after a massive stroke at the age of 43, Bauby, the former editor in chief of Elle magazine in France, dictated the text letter by letter to a publisher's assistant by blinking out an alphabetic code with his one functioning eye. Despite the obstacles to its composition, Bauby's mordant, lyrical, heartbreaking book has the directness of a telegram sent straight from the author's brain. Two days after its publication in 1997, Bauby died.
I have to confess that I didn't think painter/filmmaker Julian Schnabel could pull off the task of translating this butterfly of a memoir to the screen. He's shown a flair for visually arresting artist biopics and a keen eye for casting (David Bowie as Andy Warhol in Basquiat? Genius), but how would he represent the maddeningly slow process of letter-by-letter dictation without putting the audience to sleep? How would he give us a sense of Bauby's nimble mind when all we have to look at is an immobile protagonist with a twisted, drooling face? In short, wasn't Schnabel, despite his best intentions, doomed to make another noble-gimp movie that would betray the book's rigorously unsentimental tone?
Apparently not. With the help of brilliant French actor Mathieu Amalric, Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), Schnabel has made a marvelous film that uses images with as much grace and flair as Bauby used words. As the film begins, Jean-Dominique ("Jean-Do" to his friends) slips in and out of consciousness, slowly putting together that he's in a hospital on the Normandy coast, and that—nightmare of nightmares—none of the doctors looming over him can understand his perfectly coherent responses to their stupid questions. The audience hears this interior monologue in voice-over, and for the first half-hour of the film, we see only what Jean-Do sees. It's an extreme point-of-view technique that usually falls flat on-screen, but one that's perfectly suited to get across the isolation and panic of Bauby's condition, a rare form of cognitive imprisonment called "locked-in syndrome."
Jean-Do's long days are punctuated by regular visits from four women, each more Gallically gorgeous than the last. There's a speech therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) who teaches him the blinking technique that enables him to communicate his first words: "I want death." A pillow-lipped physiotherapist (Olatz Lopez Garmendia, Schnabel's real-life wife) demonstrates a sequence of obscene-looking tongue exercises, during which we're privy to his dirty-minded and hilarious thoughts in voice-over. His estranged partner and the mother of his three children, Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), comes to help out in any way she can—even serving as translator during a painful phone call from his new girlfriend. And finally, the publisher with whom he had a book contract before his accident sends an editor, Claude (Anne Consigny), to take dictation for the book Jean-Do wants to write—in part to prove to the high-fashion world he's left behind that he's not, as rumored, a vegetable.
All this is interwoven with impressionistic fantasy sequences in which Jean-Do imagines Venus flytraps consuming their prey, bullfighters flourishing their capes, and glaciers crumbling into the sea. Rolled through the halls of the hospital, he has a vision of kissing its first benefactress, the Empress Josephine; remembering his youth, he sees himself as a preening Marlon Brando. We rarely see Bauby as he appears to others—indeed, it's a good 40 minutes into the movie before we get a look at his distorted, frozen face. But even thereafter, the movie never settles into conventional biopic mode. Kaminski's camera continues to take flight in periodic dream sequences—a conceit that could easily seem pretentious, if the viewer wasn't so engaged that we're flying right alongside Jean-Do.
Amalric, previously best known in the United States as the neurotic, intellectual hero of the movies of Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queens, My Sex Life or How I Got Into An Argument) is a perfect choice for the part. A compact, cerebral actor, he's able to convey the brain at work behind that one left eye. In flashbacks, we see Amalric in motion, lithe and vibrant, and each glimpse into his past makes the return to his present a little sadder. Max von Sydow, as Bauby's housebound father, has only two scenes, but he's devastating in both. And the four women are superb, if a little indistinguishable—a choice that may have been deliberate on Schnabel's part, since to a bedridden womanizer like Bauby, they must each have seemed like representatives of the eternal, untouchable feminine.
The figure Julian Schnabel cuts in the press—a Bacchanalian narcissist who openly revels in the money, power, and connections his artistic success has brought him—always makes me want to despise his movies. But his touch becomes finer with each one, and with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I have to cry "uncle"—I don't know much about his paintings, but as a director, the guy is a true artist.