In 1995, French Elle editor-in-chief Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed him; a condition called "locked-in syndrome" left him unable to control his body, apart from turning his head and blinking one eye. Nonetheless, his brain remained fully functional, and with the help of patient transcribers, he was able to use a blinking code to dictate a slim book, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. Published in 1997, just days before his death, it described his thoughts and experiences as a paralytic, likening his unresponsive body to a deep-sea diver stuck far underwater in a clumsy diving suit, and his thoughts to a butterfly.
The putative film adaptation reaches well beyond the contents of that book, expanding its philosophical resignation into a grim but beautiful visual poem. It begins with Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) waking up in the hospital and learning that he's been in a coma for three weeks, but in flashbacks, it contrasts his current condition with his earlier life, and briefly, glimpses the fantasies that keep him moderately sane. As he puts it, the only two things not paralyzed are his imagination and his memory; screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) and director Julian Schnabel explore both in a dreamy, swimmy manner that communicates Bauby's mental state in style as much as content.
As with his two earlier films, Before Night Falls and Basquiat, Schnabel seems fixated on artists' detached, beyond-ordinary vision of the world, which he once again communicates through a swooping, dipping POV that approaches things from odd angles, and catches them in hushed tones. Initially, he views the world through Bauby's eyes, overlaying his thoughts atop the dialogue of the blurry people around him, to emphasize how little impact his incommunicable feelings have on them. Surprisingly, though, the film's emotions mostly stay low-key. While stricken with bouts of despair, anger, and sulky reluctance, particularly when his physical therapists offer him the tedious, repetitive blinking method of communication, Bauby achieves a sort of Zen calm that permeates the film as well. At times, Bell seems heightened and romanticized, particularly in the way everyone around Bauby remains supportive and attentive, even at their own expense. But that just prevents the film from becoming standard-arc disease-of-the-week fare, with its programmed trials and inevitable victories. Instead, Schnabel's sleepy, drifty, at times morbidly funny film tackles something more ambitious, by getting into the head of someone who's trying to get out of there himself.