The much vaunted "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" has an undeniably inventive and captivating visual style but its truest successes lie in the simple moments of genuine emotional clarity that Cannes winner and Golden Globe winning director, Julian Schnabel crafts within his flourishes. Based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the 43-year-old bon vivant editor of Elle France, who suffered a ruthless stroke that left him totally paralysed save for a single eye, is left veritably "locked-in", as the doctors tells him. Fully cognisant but with the barest of responses, Bauby learns to slowly and painfully communicate through blinks of his left eye. The title refers to the disparity of existence that his consciousness feels, his mind is liberated as a butterfly but his body threatens to tether and submerge him.
While the source material of the film (unread by me) takes on a meta quality late on in the proceedings, the film translates the experience of experiencing an experience to a whole other level of appreciation, an assault on our optical senses by presenting a significant portion of film from the subjective point of view of Bauby, every tinge of fear amplified by a needle closing in, the constant dependence and the creeping realisation of an inescapable nightmare. Then Schnabel and Ronald Harwood's screenplay wisely incorporates moments of reflection and memories from Bauby, releasing its aesthetics from the fringes of gimmickry by flashbacks and a surrealistic energy as ethereal as it is pulverising.
Jazzed up on the film's plaintive moods (most evidently in a brutal love triangle and the evanescence of fatherhood), the film is engrossingly devastating, but when Schnabel is in more calculating and blustering moods, the film can adversely turn on itself by becoming so precious and patently uninspiring. But the film's descent into an anonymous stirring tale is halted by its filmmaker's intensity towards elevating the material. With Harwood's narrative ellipses sharp as scalpels, Bauby becomes more than just a character; he becomes the person Schnabel can muse upon.
Amalric offers more panache to his role than he is offered back. We believe the inner snark, the wry narration that punctuates each new endeavour and each reevaluation of Bauby's life. Neither saint nor sinner, Bauby's actions that eventually led to his slender memoir of experiences told letter by letter with the help of a translator (Anne Consigny) and speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze) are revealed to be an individual's strength and resilience personified.
Schnabel's idealistic dalliance with indulgence is tempered by Harwood's gentle script that allows a consistently affecting (though fleetingly cursory) narrative to flow between its satellite characters and Bauby becomes the film's sincerest ode to a remarkable story.