Movies that are "based on a true story" are usually dismal affairs—extraordinary human experiences flattened into pseudo-inspirational morality tales. An emphatic new exception is Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do to his friends). Diving Bell is that rare case where an amazing story and amazing filmmaking collide, a rich and beautiful film that does full justice to its source material.
Jean-Do (Mathieu Amalric) was the editor of French Elle, a high-flying Parisian vaunted for his wit and way with the ladies, until a sudden and massive stroke rendered him completely paralyzed, literally unable to move anything but his eyes.
After the stroke, at a picturesque French hospital by the sea, a team of foxy specialists devise a system that allows Jean-Do to communicate: reading the alphabet aloud until he blinks at the letter he needs. In this way, he strings together words, sentences, and eventually, with the help of his (also foxy) assistant, he "dictates" the autobiography upon which this film is based—and which provides Jean-Do's often funny, often despairing voiceover commentary on his situation.
Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is gorgeous: The beginning of the film is shot from Jean-Do's perspective, two eyes peering from a head that can't move—and when one eye must be stitched closed, his world (and by extension, the audience's) narrows claustrophobically. It's viscerally uncomfortable, almost panic inducing, to be pinned to such a limited perspective: Colors are oversaturated, lights too bright, and disembodied faces swim into view then drift away. As Jean-Do learns to communicate, though, the film also opens up visually, in the stunning unification of style and theme that makes Diving Bell one of the most emotionally affecting and genuinely inspiring movies in recent memory.