Dir Jérôme Salle, France 2016 On UK release from 18 August
For those who don’t know, and that probably means anyone under 40, Jacques Cousteau was a household name in the 1970s for being the world’s foremost undersea explorer. Nowadays, the sea is chock full of them, be they the submersible types who plumb the deepest depths, or BBC wildlife cameramen looking for footage for the next documentary. Back then, though, Cousteau was the main man, world famous for his underwater exploits, the Oscar-winning films which documented them and, it must be said, his canny self-promotion. Should you want to know a little bit more about the man behind the goggles then The Odyssey is the film for you.
It begins in 1949 with Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) in his late 30s. He’s just invented the aqualung and is using it to explore the sea near his home in the south of France. His wife Simone (Audrey Tatou) and two sons Philippe and Jean-Michel soon learn to use the equipment too, and we see achingly beautiful sequences of them swimming together in the Mediterranean. Pretty soon, Jacques realises that he can turn his hobby into a career and gradually gathers sufficient funds and sponsorship to fit out his own boat – the Calypso – which he uses to travel the world making films about his deep sea adventures and scouting possible offshore drilling locations for oil companies. So successful is he that just being Cousteau becomes a global industry and he begins to drift away from the idealism of his first forays under the sea. Quick to pick up on this is favoured son Philippe (Pierre Niney) who starts to find all the
branding – Cousteau’s team all have to wear red beanie hats for the cameras – and exploitation of the marine environment at odds with his own feelings about ecology. This leads to conflict and eventually estrangement. At the same time, Simone begins to learn about the extent of her husband’s international-class philandering. Thus the pattern is set: the film covers not only underwater goings on, but also seeks to examine Cousteau the man through his relationship with his family.
As you’d expect – and indeed might demand – from a film such as this, the underwater photography is just about the best you’re ever likely to see, almost dreamlike in its beauty. The land-based stuff can’t hope to compete with it and the combination of boardroom sequences, as Cousteau negotiates film and TV deals, and squabbles between husband and wife are not terribly interesting. The acting saves it though: Lambert Wilson, probably best known from the Matrix trilogy, is terrific as Cousteau, full of charm, charisma and self-obsession, and Pierre Niney makes for a decent foil as the idealistic prodigal son. Audrey Tatou has little to do other than age gracefully and snipe at her husband for his infidelities; evidently there were a lot.
Overall it’s a curiously old-fashioned film, a 50s-style biopic that doesn’t tell you a huge amount about its subject. A perfectly watchable but ultimately unremarkable movie.