The human spirit is always triumphing over something in the movies, but rarely with as much grace, wit and stringent charm as it does in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel's cinematic adaptation of the 1997 memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Monsieur Bauby, you may recall, was the French Elle editor and all-around bon vivant who, as a result of a massive stroke, was left paralyzed from head to toe. As mentally alert as ever, he was able to willfully move only his left eyelid, but that eyelid became the key by which Bauby unlocked the prison cell that used to be his body.
Bedridden, unable to talk or even move - it doesn't sound like promising movie material, but Schnabel has made some daring moves of his own to help us understand Bauby's plight. For the first 30 minutes or so, we see everything from Bauby's very limited point of view. Colors gel into shapes as Bauby emerges from a three-week coma; and giant faces fill the screen to explain to him what's happened. As awkward as that might sound, it's strangely riveting, at least at first. And the sense of being trapped in an isolation booth is ameliorated somewhat by the employment of voiceover narration to convey Bauby's thoughts. Surprisingly enough, he hasn't lost his wicked sense of humor, chortling at the doctor who tells him to rest for a while.
Shades of My Left Foot, where Daniel Day-Lewis played a victim of cerebral palsy who refused to go gentle into that good night. Likewise, French actor Mathieu Amalric's Bauby is a man whose appetites are as strong as ever. And the movie surrounds him with a veritable bevy of beauties - the mother of his children, his mistress, his speech therapist, the woman who takes down his literary ideas, one letter at a time. Most movies would carve out a story using these rivals for Bauby's attention, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly prefers a more scattered approach, sticking to the details of Bauby's painstaking blossoming as an artist. Indeed, the first words out of him, once he's gotten used to the deciphering method, are "I want to die."
Who wouldn't want to? And yet, without ever succumbing to sentimentality, the movie - as did the book - comes up with several reasons to go on living. There's Bauby's memory, which is shared with us via flashbacks that show us just how alive this fashion-industry mover and shaker once was. There are Bauby's fantasies, which lift off like the butterflies of the title. And finally there's the book itself, Bauby's message in a bottle, which he somehow managed to drop into the ocean before dying of heart failure two years after his stroke. That he was able to communicate at all is a miracle. That he was able to write a book seems beyond comprehension. And that the book has now been lovingly, beautifully translated to the screen? Well, it's a rare and wonderful thing.