Light and color hesitantly fill the screen, illuminating blurry visions: curtains in a window, a door, charts on the wall. A doctor sticks his face in ours, probing. We are Jean-Dominique Bauby, he explains, awakening after several weeks in a coma. We try to answer his questions. He cannot hear us. More doctors. They cannot hear. Finally, one explains the situation. A severe stroke has caused a rare paralysis of all motor function, save for the eyes. Well, one eye. The other, though it still registers, must be sewn up. We scream, but no one can hear.
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" begins like a horror film, and its story is a nightmare. At age 43, Bauby, editor of the French Elle and father of two, woke up completely paralyzed, unable to remember the stroke that felled him. The film follows his progress from the hazy, frightening initial days to the realization that he'd been sentenced by medical technology to, as he would later put it in his memoir, a "prolonged and refined ... agony."
This French-language film with English subtitles was directed by Julian Schnabel from a script by Ronald Harwood and closely follows Bauby's memoir. We learn that he began to communicate with words again with the help of a therapist who taught him to blink out letters using a special alphabet, and that from there he ended up writing the book. During the next several months he painstakingly recounts (at about a word every two minutes) what life was like for him, from his relationships with his children and friends to the denial of simple pleasures like food.
Rather than try to escape the book, Schnabel's film embraces it, often describing life in voiceover, using Bauby's words when not re-creating his perspective. But can we ever truly see and feel the way he did? Despite its intent, the device seems like an effort in futility. It also succumbs to a sentimentality Bauby assiduously avoided.
Certainly Bauby's case is sympathetic, to which extremely moving scenes in the film testify. But the strength of his book lies beyond simple re-creation, something words lend themselves to easily, but a film can achieve only outside the realm of documentary. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," despite its poignant subject, ends up feeling like a companion piece, a horrific but ultimately restrained point of view. 114 min. (PG-13) S