Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), editor of Elle France — handsome, successful, and full of life — was suddenly and inexplicably stricken with a massive stroke of such force that, with the exception of a lone left eye, he was left paralyzed from head to toe. Left with an intact mind and the ability to communicate by a series of winks, Bauby told his unbelievable story in a best-selling book that shares its title with this film. On its face, and even in the telling, the story sounds almost ridiculously lame; a sentimental, inspirational hodgepodge that might pass muster on Lifetime or some throwaway episode of Oprah. Here’s a man left utterly hopeless and alone, though in possession of such grit and will that he leaves the world his larger than life tale. Hell, the conclusion practically writes itself, with the prayer books and self-help tomes to follow. At least that’s what you’d expect. Thank fuck, then, that this is a French film and not something the Hollywood studios got their greedy little mitts on, as every possible thing that could have gone wrong is avoided in turn. So instead of the hokey, predictable waste of time it could have been, we are treated to a powerful dose of humanity at its most dire. Bauby isn’t a saint, or a hero, or even a noble man, but simply an afflicted human being doing the one and only thing available to him. It’s not even amazing, really, simply a “choice” that had no real alternative.

It’s this methodical, almost clinical approach to Bauby’s condition that makes the first section of the film so revolutionary. We see the world from his lone eye, which is both blurry and scattered in turn, and through snippets of inner dialogue and the words of those nursing his shattered body, we get a picture of his existence that would be far less revealing if seen from the outside. Here’s how a man paralyzed from head to toe would spend his achingly lonely hours, and left unvarnished, it’s almost unbearable. And as we watch Bauby learn how to communicate using blinks (he is fed a list of the most commonly used letters in order, and he signals the nurse when she’s reached the right one), it isn’t sappy or tedious, but compelling and educational all at the same time. Telephone conversations are also part of his day, and while the one with his father (played by the immortal Max Von Sydow) flirts with manipulation, it speaks more to the frustration that will now exist until this man’s dying day. It is a testament to the film’s stated ambitions — a man’s life, now deal with it — that it remains so compelling in spite of its limitations. There’s no God, or salvation, or even forced reassessment, either, and thankfully, even a burst of humor that enhances, rather than compromises, the inherent sadness. And let’s face it: it’s no great sacrifice to watch that hot French nurse (Marie Josee Croze), a woman with a face made for the camera, stare straight at the audience (and into Bauby’s eye) and speak in the world’s loveliest tongue. It’s at that point I half wished I could take the man’s place.