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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

In the Aftermath of Paralysis, a Spiritual Awakening

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of a prominent French fashion magazine, suffered a massive stroke at the age of 43. Twenty days later, he awoke from a coma in a hospital near Calais, completely immobilized save for his ability to blink his left eyelid. A victim of “locked-in” syndrome, Bauby retained full mental capacity, but found himself trapped in a body that refused to respond to all but one simple command.

From there, his improbable odyssey began. Taught to communicate by a speech therapist who patiently recited the alphabet while watching for Bauby's timely blinks, he gradually pieced his thoughts together in a soulful yet unsentimental manuscript that became a bestselling memoir and the basis for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The man who had once reveled in the heady pleasures of Parisian nightlife and held sway over the city's fashionable elite was able to document his paralysis in a fashion that was at once horrific, darkly comical and, ultimately, life-affirming. Determined to leave behind a testament to his abbreviated time on earth, Bauby died just days after its publication.

Bauby's first-person account of his experiences at the Berck Maritime Hospital and his unapologetic ruminations on the wild life that preceded them hardly seem suited to cinematic adaptation, but Julian Schnabel, who previously directed Basquiat and Before Night Falls, has created a magnificent film that pays tribute to the late journalist in honest, unflinching fashion. Remarkably, it does so without a hint of mawkish sentimentality, though it is impossible to witness Bauby's struggles without being profoundly moved.

Not that Bauby, as played by Mathieu Amalric (Munich), is above finding the humor in his predicament. While caregivers regard him with pity through his 14-month stay, he snickers inwardly at the desperate absurdity of his imprisonment and greets pretty nurses with a wicked unseen smile. He is frightened at first, then bitter, but with acceptance comes the peace of mind that allows him to experience a spiritual awakening that is uplifting without seeming contrived. He asks forgiveness from no one, though he ruefully acknowledges the indiscretions that have marked his personal life.

Amalric’s performance is both subdued and expertly nuanced. As the young Jean-Do, he moves gracefully across the screen with the suave self-assurance befitting a man of his elevated stature; after the stroke, his lip droops awkwardly and his eye spasmodically wanders, as though searching for an escape from his cell. It is a star-making turn for Amalric, who makes Bauby human without making him out as a saint.

Still, the real star of Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Schnabel’s camera, which shows us the world first through Bauby’s eye -- a blurry series of confusing images that are illuminated with time -- and later through his liberating imagination, which allows him to revisit fond memories of childhood and the fantasies, shot in brilliant hues, that invigorate his spirit. The reality of his situation is never forgotten, but Schnabel doesn’t dwell on it. He tells a story that ends in death while celebrating life and all its unforeseen twists, both cruel and miraculous.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars