'Diving' into a Personal Story

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, a French film by Julian Schnabel (Basquiat and Before Night Falls), is based on a memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, an Elle magazine editor who suffered a stroke. Afterward, a therapist taught him to communicate by blinking his left eye.

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'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'

Marie-Josée Croze in 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' i

In the eye, behold: Marie-Josée Croze plays the speech therapist who helps a paralyzed magazine editor learn to communicate again — by blinking — in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Etienne George/Miramax Films hide caption

itoggle caption Etienne George/Miramax Films
Marie-Josée Croze in 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'

In the eye, behold: Marie-Josée Croze plays the speech therapist who helps a paralyzed magazine editor learn to communicate again — by blinking — in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Etienne George/Miramax Films
  • Director: Julian Schnabel
  • Genre: Biography/Drama
  • Running Time: 112 minutes

Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, was a womanizing man-about-Paris at 43. Then he was felled by a massive stroke.

He awoke in a hospital bed, unable to move or to speak, an angry, unrepentant prisoner of his own body. Only his left eye worked — but that eye proved a window to the world, because with it, Bauby could blink yes-or-no answers to questions. And once a therapist devised a system for him, he could blink whole words and phrases.

And over the course of 14 months, he was able to blink out, one letter at a time, a best-selling memoir of his ordeal called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — a memoir that possibly no one but a neo-expressionist artist like Julian Schnabel would regard as an attractive basis for a film.

What's fascinating is that it is the very restrictions the story imposes on a director that allow Schnabel to turn it into such an eerie stunner of a movie. The first part of the film is told entirely from Bauby's point of view, with the camera seeing only the blurry, imprecise images that he sees: When his right eye must be sewn shut to keep it from drying out, we see that from inside the eyelid.

But once Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) manages to blink his way into communication with those around him, the director pulls back to let us see what they're seeing, and the picture isn't pretty. The man is a mess — and was not, we gather from those who visit him, a very nice guy before the stroke.

But intellectually, and in his struggle, he is a fascinating creature, and this film — rigorously unsentimental, psychologically acute, and wildly creative in its use of the camera — gives him his due. (Recommended)

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