It's a good movie, but I've been holding off in reviewing it until I could decide whether it was a truly great movie or if what felt like flaws in my first viewing would linger in my head. And like I said, I like this movie - I like it a lot - but it's not perfect.
Julian Schnabel's film is the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, struck down by a cataclysmic stroke in the prime of his life. Bauby was diagnosed with 'Locked-In Syndrome', finding himself completely paralyzed except for his left eye and eyelid, only able to communicate by blinking. The story unfolds from Bauby's perspective as he tries to cope with what's happened to him, coupled with flashbacks of his family and love life and fantasy sequences.
Julian Schnabel clearly identifies with Bauby as a successful bon vivant with big appetites for life and women, working in a glamourous industry (Bauby was editor of French Elle magazine; Schnabel was a world-famous artist before he moved into filmmaking) and as such, there's an unavoidable sentimentalization of Bauby's pre-stroke life. Schnabel makes it clear that Bauby wasn't a saint, that he had difficulties staying faithful in relationships and shirked his duties as a father, but Schnabel never really takes him to task for these personal flaws, apparently deciding that the stroke was punishment enough. It's not a major flaw in the movie but my personal preference would have been for Schnabel to not soften his character and his flaws quite so much. As a comparison, Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot offers a character in a similar situation who's still honestly presented as a dick. This aspect of the movie conforms to the standard Hollywood movie template regarding the handicapped, where a crippling injury or disease becomes inherently ennobling.
What marks the difference between My Left Foot and Diving Bell is directorial inventiveness and first-person immersion into Bauby's situation. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is essentially a co-director of this film, putting the audience directly into Bauby's head for the first act of the film. It's a dazzling, disorienting experience - we watch through his eye, but are unable to move or interact with the world we see, just as Bauby was. Ultimately it's this tactic that makes the film succeed - it doesn't matter who Bauby was before his stroke. When watching the movie, he's us, and we're him, and the journey that proceeds from that point is invigorating.
I need to make sure that I emphasize that Kaminski's cinematography is outstanding, some of the best of his career, and that the performances, especially those of Mathieu Amalric and Max Von Sydow, are excellent. it's a beautiful movie, with several heartbreaking scenes (a late one in which Bauby's wife tells him she can't stand to visit him in the hospital is especially painful). It's a beautiful movie, just not a perfect one.