Etienne George, Miramax Films.
Mathieu Amalric plays French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY — **** — Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Crozee; in French, with English subtitles; rated PG-13 (profanity, nudity, vulgarity, brief drugs, sex, violence)

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is one of the most challenging films in the recent memory.

In fact, an opening sequence may prove to be a little too challenging for some audiences. The first 15 or so minutes are shown from the perspective of a recent stroke victim, and the resulting blurry, blinking camera work may test the patience of a few viewers.

However, it's definitely worth it to stick with the film. This well-acted and surprisingly moving drama is based on a true story. Its title refers to the memoirs written by French Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was paralyzed and left speechless by a sudden stroke.

French actor Mathieu Amalric plays Bauby, who is shown as being bitter about his predicament. The stroke has left Jean-Dominique with no movement in any of his limbs and with sight in only one eye.

However, his doctors are trying to convince him not to give up on life but to hope for some form of recovery. In fact, a therapist (Marie-Josee Crozee) is attempting to teach him to "communicate" using a series of eye blinks. (This is shown to be a painfully slow learning process.)

Screenwriter Ronald Hardwood and director Julian Schnabel have used a lot of Bauby's writings and specific language. But their smartest move may have been casting the underrated Amalric ("Kings and Queens") as the lead.

It would be easy to overlook Amalric's performance, since his character's face is "frozen" in its expression and since much of the film is shown from Bauby's point of view, which offers us only a few fleeting glances of him.

However, he is excellent in a handful of flashback sequences, and his voice-over narration is very effective. (This is one of the few movies that actually need to have narration and use it properly.)

Also, Amalric's work here was apparently enough to get help him cast as the villain in the upcoming James Bond feature "Quantum of Solace."

He may be the standout, but the supporting cast is very good as well. That includes the always-welcome Max von Sydow, who plays Bauby's father in some of the movie's most touching scenes.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is rated PG-13 for sexual language and strong profanity, vulgar references, flashes of male nudity, brief drug content and references (various pharmaceuticals and prescribed medicines), brief sexual contact, and some brief violence (a bull fight). Running time: 116 minutes.

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