The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the most beautiful movie ever made about a man who could only move one eyelid almost dangerously beautiful. I tend to be wary of ethereal composition applied to unpoetic, human, physical mess, for its romanticizing, narcotizing effect. But this assertive adaptation brings Jean-Dominique Bauby's phenomenal memoir, Le scaphandre et le papillon, to life honestly.
Bauby (a bravura Mathieu Amalric from Munich, ablaze even when motionless) was in his robust 40s, the high-flying editor of French Elle magazine, when a massive stroke spared his mind but permanently paralyzed his body in a condition known as ''locked-in syndrome.'' After he emerged from a 20-day coma, a devoted nursing team taught the patient to communicate by blinking that eyelid, yes or no, as an alphabet was read to him with which he could spell one word, letter by letter, and then another. And with those blinks, Bauby produced a testament to living, loving, raging, even laughing. He died a few days after the book was published in France, in 1997. He was 45.
It's of no small interest that while he wrote, Bauby (ever the editor attuned to cultural trends) communicated his keen interest in getting the book made into a movie. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if the worldly, once powerful arbiter of tastes blinked out the name Julian Schnabel as his director of choice, so temperamentally suited is the outsize filmmaker to Bauby's own dynamic prose. Set free by Ronald Stevenson Harwood's striking script, which views the story from Bauby's eye and his experience of a deadened body and roving mind, Schnabel treats The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as a giant canvas. Here, the artist who used to glue broken pottery to his own paintings has scattered, layered, and shuffled images to create a very specific universe as sensual as the subject himself described it in hard-won words.
When Bauby is rolled in a wheelchair to a hospital balcony for a view of the sea, or visited by his three children, or cleaned like a baby, those exterior events flow seamlessly into exquisite visual evocations of the writer's interior fantasies. Beautiful women parade in and out for our delectation, including the mother of his children (Emmanuelle Seigner), who remains faithful at her straying man's bedside; the angel-like therapists who encourage him (including a beatific Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, and Schnabel's wife, Olatz Lopez Garmendia); and, fleetingly, in memories of his lover (Lady Chatterley's Marina Hands), who now can't bear to see her man.
Bauby invented his own metaphor for the reality of his body held prisoner. ''My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly,'' he wrote. ''There is so much to do.'' This movie does what Bauby wanted to, with appropriate panache. A-