A dramatisation of the life of Jacques Cousteau, the French explorer who helped raise awareness of the ecosystems of the underwater world. The cinematography captures the awe and wonder of the aquatic landscape.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau is the Gallic David Attenborough. In conjunction with Louis Malle, he became the first to win the Palme d'Or with a documentary and both The Silent World (1956) and World Without Sun (1964) received Oscars. Moreover, his adventures aboard The Calypso made The Undersea World Of Jacques Cousteau (1966-76) required TV viewing. But, while director Jérôme Salle does justice (albeit with some digital enhancement) to Cousteau's oceanographical legacy, he struggles to fathom the dramatic depths in chronicling his fractious relationships with first wife Simone Melchior and their second son, Philippe.
Despite boasting in the closing credits that he had conducted exhaustive research and interviewed several of Cousteau's key collaborators, Salle barely mentions his countless achievements in the fields of exploration, film-making, aqua-technology and conservation. Indeed, he uses a postcards-and-cuttings collage on a boarding school locker door to cover the period between 1949-63, during which time Cousteau published a bestselling book, won glittering film prizes, earned the respect of the marine community and sought to establish an underwater base with his Precontinent (aka Conshelf) habitats. Yet much of this fascinating material is skirted over, as is the fact that Cousteau was initially sponsored by British Petroleum, which gave him free fuel in return for collecting rock samples from potential offshore drilling sites.
Little is also made of his determination to reconnoitre the oceans while the Americans ventured into space. Instead, Salle and co-scenarist Laurent Turner move things along through twee epiphanies that show a cash-strapped Cousteau hitting upon the idea of hooking up with a US tele-network after gazing from his window to see numerous TV sets illuminating the night sky, or deciding to go for broke with an expedition to Antarctica after a shelf collapses aboard The Calypso and he remembers the bold ambitions he had entertained while reading 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to his young sons. Philippe also realises that he needs to switch from exploration to conservation after he sees the cook casually toss a bucketful of waste over the side.
Yet, considering Cousteau's celebrity status, his frequent infidelities, his financial crises and the simmering tensions with Philippe, there are surprisingly few moments of real dramatic intensity. Simone gets to thump his chest after finding a love letter in a jacket pocket, while Philippe curses having such a rotten father in a New York diner and Jean-Michel urges him to keep living after the tragedy that's flagged up in the opening scene. But Cousteau himself is too busy sipping champagne, signing autographs and raising funds for his next project to notice that he has taken the wrong turn and it's only when he surveys the sunlight on the polar snow that he realises he has fallen victim to “the dictatorship of materialism” and should have been conserving rather than conquering.
This meanderingly episodic approach is doubly exasperating because so many other aspects of the picture are impressive. Laurent Ott's production design has an authentic feel, although it's overshadowed by Matias Bouchard's terrestrial cinematography and Peter Zuccarini's outstanding underwater visuals. That said, the CGI spoils the shark attack sequence, while the usually discreet Alexandre Desplat's score is far too ubiquitous. Moreover, while Lambert Wilson, Pierre Niney and Audrey Tautou impart some much-needed sincerity to the sketchy characterisation, most will find themselves having to resort to the Internet to fill in the many biographical gaps.
Cousteau lived an exciting, if sometimes tortuous life. But, while it's engagingly played by a solid cast, this respectful but hardly revelatory account lacks the narrative potency to recreate it.
David Parkinson, Empire magazine, 8th August 2017.
If you’re going to title your film “The Odyssey,” you need to be pretty certain it’s got enough narrative heft and thrust to justify the Homeric allusion. Celebrity oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s life was inarguably rich in accomplishments and teeming with anecdotes, but despite some lavish spectacle, Jérôme Salle’s watery biopic doesn’t make a case for it as the stuff of great cinema.
Spanning roughly 30 years, as it follows the Frenchman’s evolution from eccentrically ambitious naval officer to internationally revered explorer and ecologist, the film episodically ticks off the years without finding a galvanizing biographical arc in its subject’s professional or personal activities — and for much of its running time, appears torn between telling Cousteau’s story and that of his ill-fated son and collaborator Philippe. Handsomely lacquered production values and an under-exploited name cast — including Lambert Wilson as the red-beanied captain and Audrey Tautou as his long-suffering wife Simone — give “The Odyssey” some commercial ballast, particularly on home turf, but this San Sebastian curtain-closer won’t capture viewers’ imaginations as Cousteau’s own documentaries did.
The closing credits of “The Odyssey” begin with an unusual disclaimer, or perhaps simply a claimer: Citing the books on which Salle and co-writer Laurent Turner based their version of Cousteau’s life, including a 2012 memoir by his son Jean-Michel, it goes on to state the extensive research and interviewing work apparently undertaken by Salle himself in the scripting process. Presumably intended to safeguard the film against accusations of factual infidelity, it seems preemptively defensive: There’s not much in “The Odyssey’s” earnest account that seems too compelling to be true, even as it glosses over certain complexities in typically expository biopic fashion. Cousteau’s litany of extra-marital affairs, for example, is addressed in a single scene of confrontation between him and Simone; as a character portrait, the film may thus fend off potential accusations of hagiography, but unlike its deep-diving protagonist, it’s mostly content to float on the surface.
It is, at least, an attractive surface. A relative newcomer to features, cinematographer Matias Boucard lends a glinting National Geographic glaze to a dazzling array of global exploration locations — a number of them played by ever-versatile stands-ins Croatia and South Africa. (The latter served as the setting of Salle’s previous feature, the wobbly English-language cop thriller “Zulu” — on which “The Odyssey,” however uneven, represents a considerable improvement.) Smooth, crystalline underwater lensing, meanwhile, appropriately showcases technical advances in the field that Cousteau himself pioneered. What he’d have made of the film’s elaborate digital interventions — notably in one vivid, nightmare-fueling swimming-with-sharks sequence — is another question.
In a move that has become all but de rigueur in prestige biopics these days, “The Odyssey” begins with a significant flash-forward, detailing the circumstances that caused Philippe Cousteau (played by the currently ubiquitous Pierre Niney) to crash his flying boat into a Portuguese river in 1979. It’s the first of several times Salle and Turner tease the possibility of framing Cousteau’s life through that of his son, though the film never fully commits to a perspective. Winding back 30 years, Cousteau’s formal departure from the French Navy and his first forays into oceanography are covered more or less through the eyes of 10-year-old Philippe and his older, less-favored brother Jean-Michel. Several key figures in Cousteau’s career are introduced in hazy, haphazard fashion, and even Simone (under-sketched throughout, though given occasional stabs of piquancy by Tautou) gets short shrift from the outset.
Old-fashioned montages and other time-marking devices — such as a long pan over Philippe’s conveniently postcarded locker at boarding school — fill in the essential facts of Cousteau’s rising star as an explorer and filmmaker. Matters gain some focus and tension when Cousteau is reunited with his grown, semi-estranged son, and they begin an on-off professional partnership, but neither man is written in especially penetrating or sympathetic fashion. Standard-issue daddy issues are the order of the day, while secondary narratives involving Cousteau’s draining U.S. television career, Philippe’s marriage to an American model — granted less screen time than certain sea lions — and their shift into environmental activism are dramatized in perfunctory bullet points.
An actor rarely inclined towards overstatement, Wilson (aided by some seamless ageing makeup) brings a sort of rakish gravitas even to Cousteau’s most child-like impulses, somehow maintaining his dignity when donning the signature Cousteau headgear (“It’s telegenic!”) that younger viewers are likelier to associate with Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou. Niney, for his part, plays both Philippe’s early callowness and gradually acquired idealism with equal brooding intensity; neither actor’s performance is quite the one to animate this largely Wikipedic enterprise.
But if its dry-land action remains, well, on the dry side, “The Odyssey” is — to crib a line from Sebastian the crab — better down where it’s wetter. Rote as biography, Salle’s film instead best honors its subject by inviting audiences to marvel at what lies underwater, whether it’s a seal lunging at the camera lens or, in one lyrical sequence, a majestic, storm-skinned whale drifting peacefully in the blue. The camera and digital effects teams have done their best to bring a sense of wonder to proceedings; trying a little too hard on that front, however, is the redoubtable composer Alexandre Desplat, whose ornate but frankly overbearing score leaves no emotional response to chance. Cousteau may have christened the sapphire depths “The Silent World” in his Oscar-winning documentary of that name, but Desplat’s relentlessly keening strings have other ideas entirely.
Guy Lodge, Variety, 24th September, 2016
Total Number of Responses: 57
Film Score (0-5): 4.09
123 members and guests attended the screening of The Odyssey. And with 57 responses this delivers a hit rate of 46%. Your comments reflect a view that the critics were unfair and unjustly critical. However, there were many observations about some failings in the overall structure of the film.
“What a mix of research, exploitation, daring, insight, foolishness and hope. Probably all necessary and what makes some people stand out from the crowd”. “Beautifully photographed and much better than the critics led us to believe”. “Not what I was expecting but arrogance is possibly a pre-requisite to achieve what he did”. “His life ambition well portrayed. Underwater scenes disappointing in that we are now spoilt by Attenborough”.
“Pretty to look at but not enough real depth to the personal/professional links that apparently caused big rifts in lives around Cousteau. At times the film appeared to be almost haphazard with how people's relationships were portrayed. Like the digital pieces, especially the sharp swimming-with-sharks sequence. Film became more coherent where the financial difficulties became evident and the almost obsessive drive to continue take over. However, the real strengths were where water takes over, or Cousteau's conversion to environmentalism; but how true was it? Maybe I'm just not convinced about biopics!”
“As a child I was enthralled by 'The Undersea World' and as a scuba diver read 'The Silent World', one of the bibles of diving lore. One might be forgiven for thinking this is 'The Odyssey Part 2' as so much fascinating material in Cousteau's life is already past when this film begins. The underwater scenes are beautifully realised and give a real sense of the wonder of the depths, on land however, the film moves like a stranded whale. Despite some strong support (Tautou in particular) Cousteau and to a lesser degree Philippe struggle for any depth in characterisation, the plot lumbers, more interested in company finances than wildlife and the sparkling cinematography only lends it the air of a lengthy Rolex commercial. The film finally coheres in the last section when Cousteau is persuaded of the existence of a higher purpose and the film makes a strong and still relevant point movingly”.
“The reviewers are wrong! The underwater filming was superb – but the story of the human relationships was more gripping”. “Beautifully filmed – interesting to recall his pioneering films under the waves. Went on a bit too long but made its point. Sadly we are still polluting the Oceans”. “Much better than the reviews led me to expect!” “I disagreed with the reviews. I think the film did what it intended. A snapshot of the life of Cousteau and his love of the sea and realisation that Antarctica must be preserved”. “I found this a rather disjointed film although somewhat redeemed in the last quarter. Certainly better than the reviews would have you believe”.
“A welcome escape from the weather to sunny climes and the wondrous undersea world of Jacques Cousteau. Rated this as good but bordering on excellent. Cousteau didn't come across as a particularly nice person and it left me wondering if his conversion to conservation was genuine or just a way to get back at the oil companies and to follow the money. I am sure there was a lot more to the man and his relationships with family and others than could be covered in this film, but it certainly left me curious to find out more about him. Another good choice, thanks”.
“A film that often looked pretty but whose quality on many fronts left something to be desired. The decidedly mediocre review on our briefing programme rang alarm bells long before the film started, and given the mediocre reviews of the previous film (Loves of a Blonde) we began to wonder whether the selection committee was losing its way. Luckily the clunky opening (actors shaking in their seats to represent flying in an old aeroplane) didn't persist, and the photography was fine, but the content was just all over the place”.
“A single score is hard – am I scoring it as a story, or a biopic, or a wildlife film, or as an environmental appeal? The fact that Cousteau-style film is now routine on our TVs shouldn’t cheapen the skill and commitment required to produce it. But I kept coming back to the environmental angle, and disagreeing with the statement that ‘we’re not too late’. Maybe it seemed like it then, but for all the attention, the cause is lost, sadly. All we’re doing now is managing decline. But that’s another story. This one was average (and I don’t mean mathematically) in lots of ways, redeemed by some nice marine filming”.
“A great film. Not like the review”. “Beautifully shot. More about Phillipe than Jacques but very enjoyable. The critics were wrong”. “The critics were wrong. A brilliant film amd an insight into a complex man”. “Superb – mesmeric from start to finish”. “As a child I loved watching Jacques Cousteau. I knew so little about his life and this film was a touching and surprising account of him and his family”. “Superb”. “Very interesting. A great story of our time”. “Excellent photography. Much better than the reviews. He saw sense in the end”.
“Agree that the reviews were unfairly critical. Good story, well told and beautiful cinematography”. “Much better than the reviews led me to expect. A gentle, informative film. Almost as though based on a true story”. “Wonderful start to the underwater photography we can now enjoy”. “A good attempt to cover most of Jacques life story. Beautiful photography”. “Beautifully shot; moving; bit slow in parts”. “Very enjoyable”. “Beautiful photography! I liked it”.
“Interesting to see the back story of someone I remember so well from my youth. Some great photography”. “A bit slow”. “As expected- amazing photography”. “Fantastic filming. Very enjoyable. A definite message at the end”. “Guess this represents just one view of Cousteau – as is the case with this type of production”. “Underwhelming”. “I’m not sure what the point of the film was and why he felt moved to make it”. “I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, but a bit mawkish. I think everyone ought to watch “The Life Aquatic” by Wes Anderson!” “Enjoyable but I wish I hadn’t read the two reviews first as the negative points they raised rather leapt out at me. Some beautiful sequences”. “Sentimental claptrap”.