Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle, womanizer, general jerk, has a stroke. Suddenly, his playboy life is gone and he’s trapped in an ocean-side rehabilitation center, trapped indeed in his own body — the only part of which capable of movement is a single eyelid. The first section of the movie we experience things from his point of view, literally seeing his world through the vignette of a blinking eyeball. Using his blinks, he can communicate, albeit slowly, with the nursing staff and visitors.

What an actual diving bell looks like (courtesy Wikipedia)

He feels as if he is trapped in a diving suit (not a diving bell) but his thoughts are free to flutter anywhere (like a butterfly).

Mostly, we flashback to episodes of his ambulatory life where he treats poorly his father, his girlfriend and an acquaintance on a plane. The paralyzed version of his personality is no less odious. He rejects the faithful mother of his children for his faithless mistress. (This is the film’s best scene, carried by a tremendous performance by Emmanuelle Seigner.)

Don’t be fooled by those who say The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is life-affirming. Despite the inspiring notion that Jean-Dom soldiered on and composed a slim memoir using only eye-blinks, the film itself seems to view life as a rather cruel joke. As soon as he is truly adjusted to life inside the diving suit, pneumonia overtakes him.

To say that screenwriter Ronald Harwood and director Julian Schnabel had a moral or ironic or life-affirming message in mind I think overstates the clarity of their intentions. The reason particular episodes are dramatized seems as random as the wandering thoughts of the protagonist. I found much of the movie as frustrating and boring as actually being stuck in a hospital bed. It’s one thing to put the audience in a character’s shoes. It’s another punish them for the sins of the character.