You'd imagine a film set partly inside the head of a stroke victim who can only move one eyelid would be an exercise in claustrophobia, but Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is among the free-est movies I've ever seen.
It's an adaptation of a memoir by Jean-Domonique Bauby, editor of the French version of Elle Magazine, a gadabout who out of the blue got struck with a rare condition called "locked-in" syndrome.
For the first part of the film, we see the world through his eyes. The screen is half-in, half out of focus; figures slant away, then loom in the foreground to speak to the man who can't answer. But he answers in his head, in the voice of actor Mathieu Amalric, a voice that's acid and impish and very sexy.
I'll come back to "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," but I want to talk about Schnabel. He made his fortune as a painter in the crazy art inflation of the 1980s with works that had odd juxtapositions and textures. He was called a motion painter - which made him a natural filmmaker. His movies aren't painterly in the coffee-table book sense. They're swervy and, like Schnabel, gluttonous; he packs in all kinds of sensations.
His first film, "Basquiat," was about the working-class graffiti painter who flamed out, and I get the sense he shot a ton of footage and dumped it in his editors' lap. But the movie was messy and alive.
His next film was even better: "Before Night Falls," which focused on the persecuted gay Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas, played by Javier Bardem. Look at the bodies of the actors; sexualized yet so pale and vulnerable under the Cuban sun.
These are films about the secret lives of artists and writers, which is perfect for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." The body of Bauby - he's called Jean-Do - might be heavy and a world away from the surface: the diving bell. But in his mind he's the butterfly-soaring through time and space, transcending boundaries. Look at Brando, who embodes even the absence of sexual boundaries.
The shock when you actually see him after all that movement is thunderous.
There's something larger at stake. Jean-Do's yearning, his inability to get out of his head and make full contact with the people he loves, reminds us how far we all are from the surface of our lives.
Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a masterpiece in which "locked-in" syndrome becomes a metaphor for the human condition.