Jacques Cousteau was many things. The French icon was an explorer, filmmaker, inventor, and marine conservationist who used his films to introduce the world to life in the ocean that surrounds them. In Director Jerome Salle’s new biopic of Cousteau, ‘The Odyssey’, we’re also introduced to him as a father, and a man whose ocean adventures came into conflict with his desire to be a celebrity.
Beginning in 1949, Cousteau, with Lambert Wilson donning the iconic little red hat, helps develop such innovations as the Aqua-lung and underwater film-camera alongside his French navy colleagues. With the help of his wife Simone (Audrey Tatou), he purchases his famed ship The Calypso – documenting his explorations and releasing such films as ‘The Silent World’.
His celebrity status leads to tension in the family, especially with his youngest son Philippe (Pierre Niney), and making compromises with devastating environmental repercussions.
Early in the film, Wilson’s Cousteau tells his young son about a shoulder injury from trying to impress his wife. He finishes by telling his son, “Love makes you do silly things”.
This one line sums up the decisions Cousteau made in his life, from his love of the ocean leading to him help an oil company drill off shore to fund his adventures, to his love of being a celebrity leads to questionable practices with sea life for his films, like in a scene featuring distressed sea lions.
It is telling he should share this line with his son Philippe, as the film is less a telling of Cousteau’s life, but more his relationship with Philippe. While most biopics cram the entire life of its subjects into a limited amount of time, ‘The Odyssey’ excels in presenting the father/son relationship of the Cousteau’s.
There is a lot of tension between the two, coming to blows a number of times, but there is also a lot of love. The love comes through when Philippe and Jacques reunite after some time of estrangement, leading to Jacques realising his priorities to marine conservation once again. Their love for each other also leads to a devastating blow in its tragic conclusion.
Unfortunately, this relationship doesn’t allow for much exploration of others in the elder Cousteau’s life, with even his own wife feeling like a one-dimensional person, despite how much the wonderful Audrey Tatou tries to inject into her.
Both Wilson and Niney give brilliant performances, but the film would have been better served if their characters’ relationship was explored through a small episode rather than across its entire lifespan.
What makes ‘The Odyssey’ stand out is its beautiful cinematography. The underwater sequences are full of lush colours and space. Just as impressive is a voyage to Antarctica, with amazing shots of the ice from above and underneath.
These shots rival those in Cousteau’s films in the beauty and awe they inspire. While ‘The Odyssey’ lacks depth in its story, it makes up for it by showing the depths of the ocean.
It’s unfair the story had to compete with these gorgeous images. If the filmmakers focused just as much on the story as they do its scenery, it could’ve been a brilliant picture.
‘The Odyssey’ is still a pleasure to watch, making you fall in love with the world deep below the surface.
3.5 out of 5 Little Red Hats.
Alliance Francaise French Film Festival Tour Dates7-30 March – Sydney
8-30 March – Melbourne
9 March-4 April – Canberra
15 March-5 April – Perth
16 March-9 April – Brisbane
30 March-23 April – Adelaide
30 March-8 April – Hobart
6-9 April – Parramatta
8-9 April – Casula