Reviewed by Ken Fox

In an unlikely coup, artist-turned-director Julian Schnabel transformed French magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby's miraculous 1997 memoir of life as a completely paralyzed stroke survivor into a film that captures the essence of the book in both its horror and its unexpected beauty.

The last thing 43-year-old French Elle editor-in-chief Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) remembers is picking up his son in the suburbs of Paris and racing off to the movies in his bright red convertible. The only thing he now knows for certain is that he's in a hospital bed and can't move or speak. Looking directly into his left eye — the only one that seems to be working — and using a voice usually reserved the semiconscious, his doctor apprises him of the situation: Jean-Dominique has suffered a severe cerebrovascular accident — a massive stroke — and is now completely paralyzed, save for his left eyelid, which he can still blink at will. His right, nonfunctioning lid will have to be sewn shut to save the eye from a corneal infection. Confined to a facility in the northern French seaside town of Berk-Plage, Jean-Dominique is the victim of rare and probably permanent condition known as a "locked-in syndrome," a nightmarish combination of complete physical paralysis and total intellectual awareness. As Jean-Dominique puts it, he feels as if his mind, which remains as free and agile as a butterfly, is permanently trapped inside a diving bell submerged deep underwater. With his paralyzed face pulled into a grotesque rictus, Jean-Dominique is visited regularly by the mother of his three children, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), who remains at his side despite his affair with another woman, but Jean-Dominique's real deliverance comes when he begins working with speech therapist Henriette Durand (Marie-Josee Croze), who teaches him to communicate using the only tool at his disposal: his eyelid. As Henriette recites an alphabet with letters arranged according to the frequency with which they're used in French, Jean-Dominique learns to blink when she reaches the letter he needs. Slowly, he's able to form words and entire sentences. Through Henriette, Jean-Dominique contacts a publisher who, in what now seems like another life, contracted him to write a book. Jean-Dominique offers an extraordinary suggestion: He'll still deliver a manuscript, but one recounting the new life he must now learn to live.

Like Bauby's memoir, Schnabel and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood's (THE PIANIST) adaptation is far from a mushy exercise in never-say-die optimism — it's suffused with Bauby's terror and bitterness. But it also conveys Bauby's mordant sense of humor and irony: Jean-Dominique suspects he somehow tempted fate by audaciously threatening to rewrite The Count of Monte Cristo, which includes the unforgettable character of Noirtier de Villefort, a "living mummy" locked inside his own paralyzed body, and sneering at the crippled Madonna-worshippers at Lourdes. Schnabel's great achievement is to draw the viewer directly into that experience, and he boldly opens the film with a series of harrowing POV shots that slip in and out of focus and fade out with every blink of Jean-Dominique's eye. Similarly, we feel something of the liberation Baudry must have felt at once again having language at his disposal. Amalric is extraordinary, creating a character literally without moving a muscle, as is Max von Sydow, who gives a tremendously poignant performance as Baudry's aged father, who finds the son he once depended on now far more incapacitated than himself. It's a remarkable highlight in a long and distinguished career. (In French, with English subtitles)