Written by Caballero Oscuro
Yes, this is that movie about the guy who’s completely paralyzed except for one eye. No, it isn’t boring; in fact, it’s completely enthralling. How is that possible? A solid script, an adventurous director, and an immediately involving concept unite to fully immerse viewers in the protagonist’s locked-in world, driving home the futility, hope, and triumph of the situation. Best of all, it never succumbs to movie-of-the-week pathos, avoiding any trite saccharine melodrama in favor of a well-balanced, logical progression that allows viewers to intimately identify with the subject and his fate without really pitying him.
Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) is a successful magazine editor leading a fulfilling life until his world is shattered by an incident that leaves him a virtual vegetable. He’s still completely cognizant, but unable to speak, move, or in any other meaningful way interact with the world around him. As a shut-in at a hospital, he’s plagued with his inability to communicate until he’s trained to “speak” with his eye. His watchers painstakingly write down his words by reciting the alphabet until they reach the next letter he wants, signified by the blink of his eye. In this extremely cumbersome manner, he’s granted re-entry to the world of the living and eventually completes his memoirs, becoming a published author while still trapped in his immobile body.
So how did Schnabel make such a compelling film out of a seemingly impossible subject? To start, he opened the film completely from the perspective of Bauby, filming at least the first 15 minutes solely with the camera acting as Bauby’s first-person view. Characters move in and out of Bauby’s limited eyesight and advise us of the situation with their words and reactions, giving the film a “you are there” sense of immersion that works wonders. He treats the camera like an eye, moving it around from a fixed perspective and showing blinks and occasional fuzziness. We never even see Bauby until well after the peripheral characters and his situation have been completely established, so by the time the camera finally focuses on him viewers have already been hooked. He also limits flashbacks about Bauby’s former life, eschewing a look at what Bauby has lost in favor of focusing on what’s yet to come.
As Bauby, Amalric puts in a bravura performance that’s far, far more that just lying around rolling his eye. Surprisingly, he’s able to convey the futility of Bauby’s condition with his extremely limited body language and voiceover narration, but also makes the most of his scant flashback time to paint a full portrait of Bauby’s life. He’s surrounded by mostly female co-stars, chiefly Emmanuelle Seigner as the loyal mother of his children, but for the most part the film rests fully on his largely immobile shoulders.
The DVD release includes a couple of featurettes on the film’s production, as well as an interview of Schnabel by Charlie Rose and a full audio commentary track with Schnabel.