There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
From Tristram Shandy to Ulysses, highly interior books usually defeat attempts at film adaptation. But the essential subjectivity of the source memoir—and a dash of Gallic insouciance—is exactly what saves The Diving Bell and the Butterfly from being a commonplace affliction drama. Much of this brilliantly realized film is shot from the viewpoint of a man who is entirely paralyzed, save for one eye and his brain. At 43, Jean-Dominique Bauby had a massive stroke that left him unable to express himself except by blinking. With the help of an exceptionally patient scribe, Bauby eventually blinked his memoir. This is the third biopic of a tormented artist by painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, following 1996’s Basquiat and 2000’s Before Night Falls, and it’s the flashiest yet. Using hot light, narrow depth-of-field, off-kilter perspective, and other tricks, Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski persuasively simulate Bauby’s physical perceptions. The patient’s voiceover narration reveals that he—stuck in a Normandy rehab hospital with strong historical associations—retains his sense of humor, while flashbacks show what he has lost: a freewheeling Paris life, not one but two beautiful lovers, and a high-profile gig as the editor of Elle. No contemporary French actor could play this role better than Schnabel’s choice, Mathieu Amalric; his exuberant performance animates the flashbacks and makes Bauby’s loss of autonomy all the more poignant. Equally moving are Max von Sydow as Bauby’s gruff but warmhearted father, and Emmanuelle Seigner as Céline, the mother of Bauby’s three children, who’d recently been dumped for the younger Inès. In one astonishing scene, Céline is required to speak for the paralyzed Bauby as he conveys his love by phone to Inès, who can’t bring herself to visit him. Bauby’s reliance on letter-by-letter communication creates occasional subtitling difficulties, but Ronald Harwood’s script does justice to the book’s words, while Schnabel translates them into evocative images. The title refers to Bauby’s confined body and unrestrained psyche, and this film captures both: the crushing experience of immobility and the temporarily liberating flight of consciousness.