“When I was young I was alone a lot, and art was a place I could escape to,” writes artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel in the introduction to a 2003 overview of his work. “What I wanted to do was find some kind of place where my imagination could not be stopped.” He’s found that place in his third feature, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the acclaimed 1997 memoir by former French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who at age 43 suffered a stroke that left him almost completely paralyzed. In the book Bauby’s surreal experience of the present is colored by his memories, dreams, and fantasies—a fitting cinematic canvas for flamboyant painter and sculptor Schnabel, who ignores the boundaries between the representational and the abstract. A new kind of art movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly fuses experimental techniques with a highly accessible and sometimes humorous narrative; it’s deeply personal yet universal in its humanism.

Like Schnabel’s two previous, more linear biopics—Basquiat (1996), about drug-addicted painter Jean Michel Basquiat, and Before Night Falls (2000), about imprisoned Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas—The Diving Bell and the Butterfly concerns a creative person confronting adversity. Bauby became a victim of “locked-in syndrome”: he could see, hear, think, and feel as before but could neither speak nor move. He was able, however, to open and close his left eye, and learned to painstakingly blink the letters of the alphabet to communicate. He’s played here by Mathieu Amalric, whose highest-profile role in American movies until now was the debonair military intelligence broker in Munich. He landed the job only after Johnny Depp gave it up to make Pirates of the Caribbean, but he’s so compelling it’s difficult to envision anyone else in the role.

Schnabel’s experimental approach kicks in with the first scene, a 15-minute sequence portraying Bauby’s harsh new reality strictly from his point of view: the doctors and nurses examining him look and speak directly into the camera. Director of photography Janusz Kaminski uses a swing-and-tilt lens and cranks the camera at different speeds to convey his groggy emergence from his three-week coma; objects go in and out of focus as his eyes dart around the room, and light streaks the frame and flares up as his vision adjusts. After doctors advise sewing Bauby’s right eye shut because it isn’t blinking sufficiently, Schnabel portrays the procedure by stitching a piece of latex over the camera lens. Watery lights dancing against the industrial green of the hospital walls, an abstracted reality, precede a pure fantasy image: an undersea shot of Bauby encased in an old-fashioned diving bell, a metaphor for his unresponsive body.

Initially we see Bauby’s entire form only in his mind’s eye, in flashbacks that reveal him to be a ladies’ man and bon vivant, flush with worldly success. Amalric’s performance in these scenes is so vivid that when the full extent of Bauby’s paralysis is finally revealed, in a stark close-up some 40 minutes into the film, the shock is visceral. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood (who won an Oscar for The Pianist) had watched Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Assigne à Residence, a 1997 TV documentary short about Bauby, and reportedly believed that unrelenting images of his physical deformity might overwhelm audiences. The screenplay lets us get to know Jean-Do, as his friends call him, before the tragedy, so that we appreciate the magnitude of his loss and of his subsequent literary achievement.

In an inspired choice, Schnabel had the script translated from English into French, with the collaboration of his actors, adding a frisson to a production that in some ways approaches documentary, employing the real-life sites of Bauby’s story—including a hospital where he was treated. Some of the medical staffers who treated him are even cast in the film.

That’s not to imply that Schnabel takes no dramatic license with the story. The character Roussin (Niels Arestrup) is based on a colleague Bauby refers to in the book as Jean-Paul K. Bauby writes that he once gave up his seat on an airplane to Jean-Paul, “who at that time had not yet been taken hostage by the Hezbollah.” In real life, he never saw Jean-Paul K. again after his release from a Beirut dungeon (where he kept himself sane by itemizing classic Bordeaux vintages). But in the movie Roussin visits Jean-Do after his stroke and advises him, “Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you’ll survive.”

The other significant changes Schnabel makes have to do with Bauby’s relationship to his wife, Sylvie, in the movie called Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner). In real life Sylvie left and it was Bauby’s mistress who stuck with him; in the film it’s the opposite. (The film also gives Jean-Do and his wife three children, while in reality they had only two.) In general Schnabel idealizes the beautiful, generous women surrounding his hero—in particular the speech therapist Henriette (the exquisite Marie-Josée Croze), who encourages Bauby to express his thoughts by means of a specially designed alphabet. Céline, icy and tense during her first visit to the hospital, gradually thaws; in a Father’s Day scene on the beach, with Jean-Do in a wheelchair, her flowered dress billowing around her bare legs hints at the passion they once shared. Later, when his long-absent mistress phones the hospital, she poignantly translates his blinks for her.

Schnabel cast his own real-life muse, wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia, as Jean-Do’s physical therapist, a devout Catholic who hopes to take him on a pilgrimage to Lourdes led by a local priest (the late Jean-Pierre Cassel). Jean-Do has been to Lourdes before: we see him in a flashback sequence on a road trip there with a former lover, who goads him into buying a souvenir Virgin crowned with a halo of electric lights—”one of a kind,” they’re told by the eager vendor (also played by Cassel). Later, after he and the lover argue, Jean-Do takes a late-night stroll alone and spots the very same statue in the same vendor’s window, which also reflects Jean-Do’s gaze. This is one of several “collaged” sequences in which Schnabel divides the frame into parallel or overlapping planes. The device is especially effective in the film’s most emotional scene: Jean-Do’s flashback to the act of shaving Papinou, his frail elderly father (Max von Sydow). When he examines his son’s handiwork, Papinou’s image in the mirror nestles against the photos of Jean-Do crowding the edges of the mirror’s frame like pictures in a gallery. It’s an abstraction that underscores the bond between the men, reinforced seconds later when Papinou tells Jean-Do how proud he is of him. “We all are children,” Jean-Do recalls. “We all need approval.”

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly intertwines the need for validation—which is tied to the impulse to create—and the inevitability of isolation and death. Locked in, Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote a luminous treatise on life and love, leaving behind a work of art that says “I was here and I mattered.” Schnabel honors that impulse with this mature, resonant portrait of an artist.v