In bringing to life the final days of Elle editor and memoirist Jean-Dominique Bauby, Julian Schnabel has thought deeply about the small choices. It wasn't enough to tell us the story of a man trapped in his brain by a debilitating mid-life stroke. He wanted to show us.
The stroke that left Bauby paralyzed from head to toe, his left eye the only piece of his body that stayed under his control, spared most of his mind. He was as alert as ever but couldn't move. He was as intelligent as ever but couldn't communicate. His condition is known as "Locked-In Syndrome," and Bauby likens it to being put into a diving suit and helmet and being suspended in water.
And so for the first third of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the camera sits right behind Bauby's eyelids, moving as his eye moves, blinking as it blinks, blurring as his eyes well with tears and, because he was a playboy of some notoriety, staring down blouses when they come into direct view.
It's disorienting, but critical to understanding not only the world as Bauby views it, but the man's changing impression of himself. Like the man himself, we only catch snippets of his physical disposition: his curled hands as his head is lifted to place a pillow, his shrinking body as his head bobs in a bathing pool. Gradually we catch bits of his face, lax and distended, reflected in windows and brass knobs. Schnabel's camera the whole time is at an odd cock, mimicking the tilt of Bauby's precious head lolling on that useless neck.
Not until Bauby himself comes to terms with his plight -- after he goes through periods of grief and cynicism and self-pity -- and begins to learn a difficult, redundant form of blinking communication, does Schnabel pull the camera out of the body and give it more freedom to roam - around the hospital room, into apartments and offices.
At about the same time, Bauby discovers his only real escape. "I decided to stop pitying myself," he says in voice-over, the main way he communicates with the audience. "Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed -- my imagination and my memory." Thus he retreats into imagination and memory the way Schnabel allows us to escape back into the world. It's a wonderfully timed liberation, giving us enough time behind Bauby's eyelids to empathize with him -- indeed to understand a bit about how crazed one could get in such a state -- but not so much as to render an ambitious cinematic construct into crass shtick. Mathieu Almaric does well in memory and imagination as Bauby's hip, fashionable intellectual mind and even better as his wooden, atrophied body and free-roaming eye.
Schnabel, a painter and director (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) does a miraculous job of making his film feel hemmed-in without feeling claustrophobic and restricted without being at a loss for cinematic language. It's shot-selection as story-telling -- the kind of sensible, thoughtful brilliance that too often gets left behind in the pomp and bravado of contemporary American direction. It's relentlessly compelling. (Rated PG-13)