Unique, agonising and unbearably poignant, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s story is one of the most remarkable imaginable. In 1997, a massive stroke left the editor of French Elle magazine with a condition known as “locked-in syndrome”: fully conscious but paralysed, save his left eye. Using only blinks, Bauby ‘dictated’, letter by letter, a miraculous memoir of his experience. It was published to huge acclaim. He died three days later.
As we said: unique, agonising and unbearably poignant. Not to mention un-cinematic, you’d think. But just as Bauby became a silent viewer of the world, the opening shot of Julian Schnabel’s inspiring adap traps us inside our own cinematic landscape to startling effect. When Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) blinks, the camera blinks. Spielberg DoP Janusz Kaminski’s lens warps along with Bauby’s consciousness. We see doctors sew up Bauby’s atrophied right eye from the inside, “as if he were darning a sock”.
A full, compelling hour passes before we leap outside Bauby’s contorted point-of-view to see that single bulging-wide eye hoovering up the world like a surveillance camera. But by now, Amalric’s wry, sarcastic inner voiceover has hooked us irresistibly into a man battling despair and madness more by fearless ego and black humour than sudsy human spirit. Ever the playboy bon vivant, he continues to access life through a series of beautiful women – whether his dictation confidant Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), or the past loves of his life as he escapes into a sensual collage of memories and reveries.
Hard-pedalling this stylised inner world and his florid fantasy flashbacks, Schnabel runs close to arty indulgence. But the director’s own cinematic eye is beautifully unsentimental and The Diving Bell’s most deeply felt scenes are its quietest.