Director Julian Schnabel is also an artist; in fact, he prefers to be known as a painter rather than as a filmmaker. That visual background serves The Diving Bell and the Butterfly perfectly in its story of a 42-year-old fashion editor who undergoes a sudden stroke, leaving him completely paralyzed except for his left eye. He can still hear, but his world is largely rendered through what he can see and eventually, what he can remember seeing. Jean-Do, the playboy senior editor of the French Elle magazine, struggles with his condition, which is termed “locked-in syndrome”–a perfectly healthy mind trapped in a husk of a body, a condition he likens to being trapped underwater in a diving bell. One of his first full sentences (once his speech therapist Henriette has worked out a system of communication using winks) indicates his wish to die; it takes time for him to learn to appreciate what he still has and to rely on his imagination and memory.
The film as a whole is one of great beauty and sensitivity, with Schnabel and two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski bringing an impressionistic touch to the scenes of Jean-Do’s imagination and memory, as well as to the first third of the film, which is almost completely filmed from Jean-Do’s point of view. As Jean-Do moves outside of himself, accepting the emotional investment that Henriette and his dictation-taker Claude (and also his ex-girlfriend Celine) have given him, the camera does as well, taking a third-person view. The danger in a film like this would be to list toward sentimentality, but Schnabel never does that. We care about Jean-Do, but his wry voice-over (taken mostly from the book written by the real-life inspiration for the story) and the caring but never maudlin camera allows a dark humor that keeps the film from becoming yet another heroism-in-the-face-of-adversity stories.
As to Schnabel’s claim to be a painter first and a filmmaker second, he may have a hard time defending his preference after having made such a wonderful film.