The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Here's a remarkable true story that comes to the screen with an exhilarating disregard for conventional rules. With maverick painter Julian Schnabel at the directing helm, you expect nothing less. The very first scene thrusts us into the head of a man emerging from a coma. His name is Jean-Dominique Bauby. He's the editor of French Elle. And a stroke has left him paralyzed, trapped in the diving bell of his own body, with only his left eye – which blinks like a butterfly – capable of movement. That Bauby was able to compose a memoir through a painstaking process of blinking when an assistant spoke the alphabet aloud is nothing short of miraculous. The book was published in 1997, just three days before Bauby died at age forty-five.

Go ahead, make your My Left Foot jokes – call it My Left Eyelash. No matter. The movie will wipe you out. Schnabel's previous two films (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) also focused on artists. But this is his best film yet, a high-wire act of visual daring and unquenchable spirit. All praise to Mathieu Amalric, whose performance as Bauby, bedridden and seen in flashback in robust, skirt-chasing health, defines the word "extraordinary." Max Von Sydow is superb as Bauby's father. Ditto Marie-Josee Croze as the therapist who teaches him the blink system. Bogus uplift isn't in Schnabel's DNA. His film honors Bauby by treating his torment and his triumph with unflinching honesty.

From The Archives Issue 1041: December 13, 2007