41-year-old Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) awakens unsure of what is going on, but when he his vision stops blurring enough for him to perceive the figures in front of him, he realises he is in a hospital because there are doctors and nurses fussing over him. The head doctor tells him that he has suffered a stroke and spent the last few weeks in a coma, and that is why he cannot move, but the fact that Jean-Do can still see and hear has to be a good sign, right? It's better than not seeing or hearing at all, but the fact remains that he is suffering from the rare "locked-in syndrome", which means he is paralysed almost completely - the only part of his body that he can move is his left eye...
But there's another part of him which can move, run, soar, and that is his imagination and mind, which is what he uses to keep himself sane in a state which would drive most to despair. Not that Jean-Do doesn't feel this at all, as one of the first things he asks for when his therapist Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) finds a way to communicate is death, something she finds terribly selfish seeing as there are many people who are extremely concerned for his welfare. But if the selfishness that such an affliction brings is not ignored here, nor is the humanity that it can draw out of both the patient and those around him.
And those who read his book, and subsequently those who watched director Julian Schnabel's film of that book. The story had been a bestseller, published a couple of days before he had finally died, and affected many of those who had even heard of it, with perhaps a touch of the "there but for the grace of God go I" about the interest in the case. You could accuse the film of attracting the same type of ghoulish interest, but just as Jean-Do had not lost sight of his compassion, and if anything had found it increased by his condition, it was hard not to be moved by this tale of a man who had everything he had wanted only to have it taken away by cruel fate, leaving him reaching a new level of awareness.
That awareness which would not have occurred otherwise, let's not forget. He was a writer and magazine editor for Elle, which had given him access to his heart's desire, which included fast cars, good food, and available women, and he had indulged in all the things such a life of plenty had offered. However, it is significant that he is not recalled best for these things, but how he was at the end of his life, unable to move and only managing to communicate through a laborious manner of blinking an eye when someone spoke the correct letter of the word he was painstakingly spelling out. Be as successful as you like, this film appears to say, but it's how you face your final curtain that is how you will be defined.
Of course, not everyone winds up in the same manner that Bauby did, and there is a feeling that what we're seeing is very much a special case which in spite of the parallels you can find with others is not entirely like what happened to anybody else, as few had the talent or the will to write an account of their struggle. If there's a hint of narcissism in the character of Jean-Do, you forgive it because he has accepted that it's only when what you once took for granted is taken away that you can truly appreciate its value. Parts of it are genuinely moving, such as the scene where his elderly father (Max von Sydow) cries when he cannot talk with Jean-Do over the telephone, and is too infirm to visit, but oddly this is not a regretful film, more a thankful one, thankful that its subject was able to make the best of a dire situation and had lived his life to the full when he could. Often reduced to acting solely in voiceover, Amalric is excellent, and the film is as personal as it could be as much of it is from the patient's point of view, if a bit too overdesigned for artistic effect; although if it was not for the prettified imagery, the film might be unbearably sad. Music by Paul Cantelon.