It's shocking to say a movie is better than the book from which it was adapted, but is it a sacrilege when that book was literally blinked out letter by letter by a person who paralyzed everywhere except one eyelid? If so, get my hand basket ready Satan, 'cuz I'm coming for a visit.
Adapted from the memoir of the same name, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the true story of Jean-Dominique Beauby, the editor of Elle France, who had a massive stroke at the age of 43 that left him completely paralyzed--with the exception of one eye. His speech therapist figured out a way for him to communicate by blinking, allowing him to communicate with his friends and family and to record his experience.
It sounds excruciating, like another "physically challenged protagonist who overcomes" movie in love with its own Oscar marketability. But it is absolutely anything but. In fact The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is gorgeous from the very second it hits the screen--with the opening credits super-ed over X-rays and set to the incongruously perky sounding tones of Charles Trenet singing "La Mer" announcing its brilliance from the get go. And with the genius of eccentric director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) and superstar Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List) behind the camera, you start to understand why.
Ronald Harwood's (The Pianist, Being Julia) script is simply remarkable--from the sheer beauty of the language to the ingenious idea to tell the story from Beauby's perspective (for a good chunk of the movie you only see what he sees and his thoughts are voiced over) to the effortless motion between the imagination sequences and reality to the unexpected humor and levity. He did the near unmanageable with a screenplay adaptation--he preserved the essence and the spirit of the book and expanded on it in a way that gave us even better, more intense and personal access to the character.
The acting is magnificent. Max von Sydow (Beauby's father) brings the audience to tears, and more importantly, as Beauby himself, Mathieu Amalric (Munich, Marie Antoinette) gets an absolutely world of traction out of one eye. The result is an emotional tour de force that is simply stunning all around.
Were it not for the fact that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is in French, it would likely get a nomination in every Oscar category there is. But the fact remains--even if Schnabel and some of the production team were American, the movie has French actors, is in French, and it feels French. And that will probably deter a lot of American audiences, which is a shame because they'll be missing out on what is without question one of the best movies of the year.