Friday, 18 August 2017

The Odyssey

The world of underwater pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau on the big screen

Written by Jason Solomons


France has always had Marianne, that feminine figurehead symbol of French pride designed to represent the Republic – she’s been embodied over recent years by Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Laetetia Casta and Inès de la Fressange.

If they had a male equivalent, they’d probably have used Jacques- Yves Cousteau. Or Jacques Tati. In any case, someone called Jacques. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

But it’s harder to think of a Frencher person than Cousteau, whose undersea adventures exported a skinny, poetic, hardy, philosophical, liquid form of Frenchness all around the world. From the 1950s, when his film The Silent World became the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (as well as an Oscar), until well into the 1980s, Cousteau was a fixture in popular culture.

Families around the globe gathered round their TV sets to watch his films, images which brought to life a hitherto hidden world of fabulous creatures and colours. We forget how striking those pictures from the deep must have been – nowadays there are whole TV channels dedicated to such fishy things, and scuba diving is an international sport, fleecing legions of eager ‘gap yah’ Tristans and Imogens of their parents’ money for a three-day course on some previously idyllic Thai island. Cousteau not only invented the underwater cameras to capture the footage, he also invented the aqualung itself. That’s one busy Frenchman.

All of this strikes home during the Odyssey, this summer’s most beautiful film and a sort of biopic of Cousteau, concentrating on his years aboard his ship Calypso, accompanied by his wife Simone and sometimes in the company of his son Philippe, the fractious relationship with whom forms the emotional core of the movie.

Cousteau is played, magnificently, by the French actor Lambert Wilson, whose name always reminds me of some rasping English cigarettes, which is a bit harsh because he’s such an elegant chap; Simone is played, very nicely, by Audrey Tatou and their son Philippe is portrayed by rising star Pierre Niney, who himself played another French icon, Yves Saint Laurent, not so long ago.

The best bits of this film take you on holiday to the blue waters of the Mediterranean to marvel at the fishes and family diving scenes. Audrey gets some nice shots in 1950s bathing suits but those old, knitted swimming trunks really don’t do much for Wilson’s Cousteau. It’s taking shrinkage to a whole new level.

Director Jérôme Salle conjures up several corkers: a throat- tightening shark cage scene, a beautiful swim in an underwater cave, a show-stopper with a killer whale. Wilson brings steel to the role of Cousteau and you get a sense of the pioneer’s drive and ego, as well as his fantasies (an underwater city, no less, like a demented Bond baddie) and constant need for cash – making underwater movies is expensive.

You also get to learn some stuff that, had they concentrated on it, might have made a sexier film, such as his womanising and his secret second family. That’s been somewhat controversial in France, a bit like a biopic in which we find out David Attenborough has fathered a tribe in the Amazon.

But, like I said, Commandant Cousteau is so French you’d expect him to have a couple of mistresses here and there. Other than his chief mistress, the sea itself, of course.

If the film can’t quite live up to the epic nature of its title, nor can it reach the depths its protagonist plumbed. But it is wondrous to behold, the music, from the ubiquitous Alexandre Desplat, is sumptuous and it’s a long, cool bath of summer Frenchness as well as a fascinating peek under the red beanie hat of a legend from a disappearing lifetime.


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