The Odyssey (2016)
“No, no, no, you did not understand, no…I am not making animal documentaries. I am going to tell the story of men who are going to explore a new world” (Jacques Cousteau in “The Odyssey”).
I grew up watching Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s TV documentaries, amazed at all the underwater world, unusual sea animals and Cousteau’s adventures. Now, there is a French-language biopic starring Lambert Wilson as Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Pierre Niney as his son Philippe and Audrey Tautou as Cousteau’s wife Simone. The film explores Cousteau’s life from the late 1940s until about the 1970s, showing his journey from an underwater enthusiast to a TV celebrity, not forgetting his private life. A passionate explorer, Jacques Cousteau was indeed a pioneer in marine research and exploration, practically inventing underwater breathing equipment, and very slowly in his career moving from unethical handling of the marine world to promoting the protection of environment. Ironically, the biopic provides little insight into the personality of Jacques Cousteau, and in terms of drama, the film is stale. However, thanks to the beautiful score composed by Alexandre Desplat (“The Painted Veil” (2006)) and Matias Boucard’s rich cinematography, there are other things here to contemplate, for those interested.
The year is 1949, and Jacques-Yves Cousteau with his family (two sons and a wife) engages in underwater leisure activities close to their secluded home. What seems to be an idyllic family life is not enough for the visionary man, and Cousteau rents the ship Calypso to explore underwater ambience around the world. The fuel for his expedition is provided by a company who seeks to find, with Cousteau’s help, oil offshore. What is more, Cousteau’s wife Simone raises the money for the adventure by selling her family’s heirloom. We are then whizzed through Cousteau’s main achievements, such as him co-publishing a book The Silent World, and winning the Palme d’Or for his documentary film of the same name, although his co-inventing of an aqua-lung is only barely hinted at in the film. What is sad here is that, in this film, we only catch a glimpse of Cousteau’s true passion for underwater activities, for example, when he gives his speech prior to his movie’s debut. In his portrayal of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Lambert Wilson (“Ernest & Celestine” (2012)) is too reserved and unimaginative, and, probably, lacks certain charisma to play Cousteau. The film then deliberately presents Cousteau in a negative light. Not only it emphasises Cousteau as ambition-driven and self-centred man who damages environment to boost his ego, but who also neglects his family completely in the blind pursuit of his (television) glory.
This leads us to the year 1963. Cousteau’s son Phillip is all grown-up and falls in love with an American girl. All seems good and Phillip initially helps his father in his adventures, but, subconsciously, Phillip begins to almost despise his father because the latter does not see the environmental concerns his underwater adventures raise. Phillip is an environmentalist and begins to rebel against his father. The fact that his father sees another woman only makes Phillip dislike him more. Pierre Niney (“Frantz” (2016)) does a convincing job playing disillusioned Phillip, and even steals the movie from Cousteau at certain times. In fact, it is through Phillip and Simone, Cousteau’s wife (played excellently by Audrey Tautou (“Chinese Puzzle” (2013)), that the audience gets the emotional element of the movie for the first time, and the whole film is presented more from Phillip and Simone’s viewpoints, rather than through Cousteau, who remains an almost mysterious antagonist throughout. This lack of focus severely damages the impact of the film.
The final part of the film is all about Cousteau and his mounting debts. When this man’s idea of humans living under water is dashed (in favour of robots that are a cheaper alternative), Cousteau is forced to open his eyes to reality for the first time, and his romanticised view of the sea is shelved. From then, Cousteau makes his “last” voyage to Antarctica to film something special there (that something special will later become the Voyage to the Edge of the World documentary of 1976). Here, the film tries to make a u-turn and show Cousteau as recognising that his previous actions were wrong, and he should have cared more for the marine environment when he was filming his documentaries. Still, the audience is likely only to have a largely negative image of Cousteau upon watching this film, and this is a bit unfair. There is no denying that the legacy of Cousteau is tainted now, and Cousteau did engage in some grievous actions with animals. However, in the time of Cousteau’s early explorations no one thought that the marine world could not just compensate and remedy any human intervention, and Cousteau did become an ecologist and a protector of environment later in his career. Cousteau’s vision was that of an unexplored world waiting to be discovered, and he did contribute a lot to our understanding of the world way below the sea level, as well as made millions of people across the globe enthusiastic about the marine underwater nature. The film ends on a nostalgic note, but any “environmental” victory of Cousteau is overshadowed by the death of his son Phillip in a plane accident.
Although “The Odyssey”’s narrative is unengaging, the film is very rich in colour, showing off some stunning ocean scenery and underwater world in all their glory. Here, both the underwater fauna and flora are shown to a maximum effect, and the cinematography by Matias Boucard is flat-out fantastic. For example, half-way through the film, when we finally see Cousteau in his trademark red hat, Phillip has some very dangerous encounters with some sharks underwater. Although this may be something way too little coming way too late, these underwater sequences are so tense and well-made, the film immediately raises its bar.
The audience will leave the theatres knowing more or less of Cousteau’s main accomplishments, but the personality of Cousteau will remain as enigmatic to them as ever. Moreover, soap opera-like scenes, involving Cousteau’s double family life, will do little to recapture their attention. Arguably, the only things that make this film more or less good are its moving soundtrack and breath-taking scenes of underwater life, both of which intend to inject subtlety and tragic nuances in this tale of one fallen hero. 6/10