The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the interesting and inventive film version of Jean-Dominique Bauby's remarkable book of the same name, which was written when he was almost totally paralysed. However, although it is admirable in some aspects and features some strong performances and moving moments, it will, to some palates, feel dull as a narrative and stylised to its own detriment.
Jean-Dominique (Almaric), the former editor of French Elle magazine, suffers a stroke-like incident which leaves him almost totally paralysed and experiencing 'locked in syndrome'; or, in his metaphor, the 'diving bell'. He can see and understand, but cannot speak or communicate with the outside world. Much of the film, particularly in the early stages, is shot from his point of view. The audience sees what he sees, accompanied by a commentary of his interior monologue of thoughts and observations.
We watch with Jean-Dominique as doctors discuss his case with an air of detached sympathy, and feel his frustration as petty incidents take on major significance in his life.
As the film progresses there is a broadening out of the point of view and a lessening of the claustrophobia, mirroring his increasing ability to communicate. We also experience the film's initial forays into a back story, during which we see the able bodied Jean-Dominique in his previous life; a character we also meet in occasional flights of imagination. The relationships from his previous life – frozen during his initial period of incapacitation – also begin to come back to life.
A major part of the film; and perhaps it's most successful strand, is the story of how he learns to talk via a letter board. This is partly due to the exceptional screen presence and charisma of Marie-Josee Croze, who plays his therapist, Durand. The scenes in which she begins to teach Jean-Dominique to communicate are remarkable for their understated power and constitute the high-point of the film.
The story of the relationship between Jean-Dominique and his father (Von Sydow) is also affecting, while the climactic scene of the love triangle strand between Jean-Dominique, his wife (Desmoulins) and his mistress also hits home.
These four or five scenes are 'The Diving Bell And The Butterfly' at its best, but they are rare peaks, driven by the quality of the performances from the cream of French acting talent. Traditionally shot, they feature none of the stylistic indulgences, misguided attempts at creativity, and narrative flatness that characterise vast swathes of the rest of the film.
And that is, ultimately, what undermines it; a persistent feeling that director Julian Schnabel is consciously striving for virtuosity at the expense of letting the story live. The viewer cannot help but feel that he has let the dramatic magic slip out of this film long before the end, highlighted by the oddly underwhelming denouement to what is eventually an unsatisfying if thought provoking piece.