The true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffers a stroke, leaving him entirely immobile, with his right eye the only fully functioning part of his body.

4
Avoids cliché at every turn.

Artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel is not known for his restraint; his previous cinematic forays (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) have made him seem like an American Ken Russell, revelling in self-indulgence. But this time around, confinement and restriction are of the essence.

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was a French bestseller in 1997, comprising the 'bedridden travel notes" of 44-year-old former Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a stroke leading to a coma and then 'locked-in syndrome": total paralysis apart from the use of one eyelid. Incredibly, he not only learnt to 'speak" again with that one eyelid – blinking to indicate letters of the alphabet – but used that agonisingly slow system to compose the book on which this film is based.

This story, extraordinary though it is, could have made for mawkishly worthy viewing. It hasn’t, partly because Bauby had an engagingly sardonic and cynical worldview, combined with a sharp turn of phrase. 'Multiple deities have been enrolled," he observes wryly, as assorted well-wishers pray for his recovery. Mathieu Amalric delivers an impressive and disquieting central performance, playing not only the stricken Bauby, but also the able-bodied 'alter ego" of his memories and fantasies, as Schnabel effectively represents his (initially) blurred and distorted perspective. Max Von Sydow is typically strong as Bauby’s heartbroken father, and everyone else is fine, although the distressed ministrations of assorted family members, lovers and nurses start to merge.

This film’s limitations were inevitable, given its subject matter. But it’s deftly constructed and quite moving. And, incidentally, there are gems on the soundtrack, notably a couple of Tom Waits songs and The Velvet Underground’s instrumental version of 'Pale Blue Eyes'.

Filmink 4/5