Haunting, searing and beautiful, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly traps you inside your worst nightmare, only to bring you to your senses. Director Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), with the gifted cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List) and a strong, largely French cast, succeed against all odds in transferring Jean-Dominique Bauby’s remarkable memoir to the screen. They manage to film the story of a man afflicted by locked-in syndrome (a state of near-total paralysis) without alienating the viewer or betraying the author’s painstaking fight for words.

This French-language film, shot on location in the Berck Maritime Hospital where Bauby, also known as Jean-Do, spent most of his life after suffering a massive stroke at age 43, begins with evocative close-ups of antique X-rays. Schnabel’s painterly approach continues as a hazy picture of pastel blues and greens begins to cohere into a hospital room. Harwood brilliantly realizes that at first the camera should be Jean-Do’s (and our) eye.

As Jean-Do (Mathieu Amalric) awakes from his coma, we hear his assured voice trying to make sense of his surroundings. As he answers the doctor’s questions, he’s puzzled by the lack of response, until he realizes he is not heard. Schnabel leisurely films these early scenes, keeping us as much in the dark as Jean-Do, the claustrophobia balanced somewhat by the aesthetics: the comforting colors, roving camera, roses, photographs on the wall. Still, these scenes are harrowing, placing the viewer inside Jean-Do’s trapped consciousness, climaxing in one of the most terrifying and disturbing images this viewer has seen in film. To keep his right eye from becoming septic, the doctors must sew it up, and Schnabel shows the procedure from Jean-Do’s (thus our) perspective, the needle slowly sealing off our vision as Jean-Do helplessly begs, “Not my eye!”

Only gradually do we learn that until the past month, Jean-Do had been the dashing, highly successful editor-in-chief of French Elle, divorced but newly in love, with plans to write a book. While his lover never visits, he is supported by his loyal ex-wife, Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), young children, friends, and the “angels” who work in the hospital. But he finds the will to live when he takes on the project of writing his memoir, using the only tool he has, his eyelid. By blinking yes and no to the letters of a special alphabet recited by Claude (Anne Consigny), his literary assistant, Jean-Do slowly composes his meditation on life, physically trapped as if in a diving bell—underwater, immobile and isolated—but freer in consciousness than he had ever been in his previous life.

Schnabel’s film takes flight the same way Jean-Do does, through imagination (the butterfly), interspersing hospital scenes with Jean-Do’s memories: gliding through fashion shoots, driving his convertible through the streets of Paris, visiting Lourdes with a former girlfriend, hugging his children; and through his fantasies: making love with his beautiful therapists, sucking down oysters with the lovely Claude, flying over flowering meadows and mountains and oceans. Without denying the stark reality of Jean-Do’s helplessness (he can’t swat a fly from his nose or prevent an orderly from switching off a soccer tournament, not to mention the obvious), the film, aided by Amalric’s pitch-perfect performance, reveals the range of Jean-Do’s emotional life, his anger, joy and wry humor.

Schnabel avoids sentimentality as fiercely as Jean-Do, but mines deep emotions. A flashback showing Jean-Do shaving his aging father, Papinou, played by the great Max von Sydow, is a small film in itself, revealing a lifetime of love and shared history. It’s impossible to leave this movie without seeing more clearly, and appreciating the wonder of being alive.