Julian Schnabel danced up to the edge of greatness in Basquiat and Before Night Falls. With The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, he plunges in headfirst. To call this a sophisticated achievement is a massive understatement, failing to appreciate how much nuance, warmth, and uniqueness of perspective is poured into Schnabel's third film. The fact that it's shot in French, a foreign tongue for the director, only adds to the feat. "Language," in the abstract sense, interests a visual artist like Schnabel greatly, and language is at the forefront of the true story of Jean-Dominique ("Jean-Do") Bauby, a paralyzed stroke victim who dictates his memoirs through eyelid blinks. Every affliction imaginable has been dramatized on film, but maybe we've never imagined something quite like locked-in syndrome. Bauby's fully functioning mind has only a single eyeball as an outlet for expression, and must spell out words by selecting them one letter at a time, blinking when the appropriate letter is recited to him. This could be the sole concentration of a really interesting film. But screenwriter Ronald Harwood has adapted Bauby's memoirs as a full-blooded character study, with a crucial assist from lead actor Mathieu Amalric, who excels at both ends of Bauby's spectrum: the carefree magazine editor, seen in flashbacks waltzing through glamorous photo shoots, and the gnarled human shell whose single eye darts about wildly, in an apparent state of permanent panic. Schnabel employs a variety of camera angles and techniques to mimic Jean-Do's perspective, as well as a recurring visual metaphor for his condition: a deep-sea diver plunged down to the depths, totally incommunicado. So effectively does Schnabel put us in his shoes, Jean-Do becomes our John Doe -- an ordinary man grappling (or sometimes failing to grapple) with extraordinary circumstances. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly explodes our preconceived notions about disease movies, emerging as one of the most striking films ever made about communication. The moving supporting performances -- including the quartet of women at his side, and Max von Sydow as his elderly father -- complete this rich and emotionally fulfilling package.
by Derek Armstrong review