The Diving Bell and the Butterfly may consist of a self-consciously "inspirational" story overlaid with art-house trappings, but the story is, for the most part, consistently compelling and, visually, the film is wonderfully effusive, even if director Julian Schnabel occasionally seems to be striving too hard for effect. Schnabel builds his film from unlikely narrative material, relating the real-life story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Almaric), chief editor of Elle France who, suddenly paralyzed by a stroke, retains movement in only his left eye. Overcoming his initial urge to surrender (one of his first communications is "I want to die") and through the selfless aid of a series of more-or-less interchangeable women (his speech therapist, his amanuensis, the mother of his children), he adjusts to his situation, learns to communicate by blinking and eventually pens a best-selling memoir, the basis for Schnabel's film, only to die ten days after its publication. If this set-up sounds rife with sentimental possibilities, the director does not always try to avoid them, but, by relating so much of Bauby's narrative through a carefully-constructed visual program, he manages to find an effective solution to the problem of filming a premise so dangerous in its possibilities for bathetic indulgence.
Aesthetically, the film is unusually rich, if a little overloaded. If Schnabel tends to subordinate character to visual presentation, we can hardly fault his priorities, since they offer a welcome corrective to the typical middle-brow art-film which pays lip service to aesthetics and expends its efforts in propping up its dull characters with superficial complexities. As Bauby realizes the two assets remaining to him, his memory and his imagination, Schnabel begins conjuring up the rich inner life of the character, a reverie comprised of personal recollection, private symbolism and vivid fantasy. Apart from the titular images, recurring shots of a man in a diving suit sinking underwater and a bright panorama of flowers and butterflies, we get the attractions of an 19th century Empress in period dress walking down a hospital hallway, a hallucinatory funeral, images of glaciers melting into the sea as well as the same footage played in reverse and a series of flashbacks from Bauby's former life, often set to pop music.
The film's engagement with the real-world present is conceived in two aesthetic models, the first-person and the third-person. The scenes shot directly from Bauby's perspective are overlaid with a blurry filter, reflecting his imperfect vision and favor crudely-darting camera jabs mirroring his rapid eye-movements. The third-person scenes are likewise subjected to a certain visual muting, mitigating the self-consciousness of Schnabel's occasionally too-studied compositions. Many of these shots are arranged as stand-alone images, like a repeated seascape with Bauby in his wheel-chair sitting on a raised platform surrounded by waves. Outside of such shots, Schnabel generally keeps his camera moving with a series of graceful dollies that provide a nice contrast with the crude camera-thrusts in the first-person segments. The subdued color-palette and refusal to provide visual immediacy (which keep all Schnabel's images at a certain remove from the viewer) only give way to a greater luminosity in several of the fantasy sequences, an appropriate gesture for representing the inner life of a man forced to live for such mental pleasures. When the director grants us the central image of the butterfly (a symbol for Bauby of his triumph over his situation), he switches to a bright, unfiltered presentation that instantly registers as a shock and justifies the use of a rather simplistic symbolic program by rendering the potency of its personal meaning in all its vivid immediacy.
Still, the whole thing occasionally seems a little too calculated, a little too neatly constructed for maximum viewer response. Bauby's change from self-pitying whiner to sympathetic optimist is effected with a startling abruptness early on in the picture so as to quickly dispel any unpleasantness of character that might get in the way of the film's smooth operation on its audience. The first third of the film is shot (almost) entirely from Bauby's limited point of view, with the blurred shots and constricted range confining us within his narrow perspective. Then Bauby suddenly announces that he will no longer pity himself and the film's viewpoint shifts to the third-person, reflecting his refusal of his previous self-absorption. This may be a neat trick, but it is too easily accomplished. The viewer rightly expects some sort of intermediate stage in his transformation, some sense of struggle, but Schnabel refuses this satisfaction in the interest of getting the narrative quickly out of the way, so he can focus on the (admittedly more interesting) question of Bauby's mental imagery. Schnabel's neatest manipulation though is saving his dramatic payoff for the film's conclusion. The unfolding of the narrative carefully skirts the circumstances of Bauby's paralysis which the film intentionally withholds until its final moments, when it offeres a comprehensive reconstruction of the event. Schnabel's presentation of the incident is thankfully restrained, but his belief that the viewer is so curious to find out the details that it is necessary to present this information as a sort of final revelation seems like an uneccesary presumption about the audience's narrative/structural requirements. Still, considering Schnabel's refusal at nearly every other moment to make the standard assumptions about his audience - that they want the narrative material milked for all its sentimental possibility, that they want their stories conveyed primarily through dialogue and simple action rather than through a complex program of evocative imagery, that they are unwilling to accept challenging formal strategies- his occasional manipulative indiscretions seem like thoroughly pardonable offenses.