Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. Even at just over two hours, L’odyssée struggles to cover only the middle stretch of a career that lasted over fifty years. The film focuses on the highlights of the most productive period of the life of Cousteau when he gained international fame through his undersea exploits, television programmes and eventual turn to environmental concerns. I think it will be difficult for younger audiences in the UK to comprehend what kind of international following Cousteau was able to attract – he won major civil honours in several countries and only David Attenborough has ever reached the same profile as a celebrity associated with the natural world. The surprising omission for me was any mention of Louis Malle who as a young man co-directed the Academy award-winning The Silent World (1956) with Cousteau. Fans of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray will however recognise that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is based on the exploits of Cousteau and his crew.
L’odyssée is a major production with an estimated budget of €20 million – large by European standards, even if France is the major European film production centre. Director Jérôme Salle seems to specialise in large-scale productions with major stars but as far as I can see his films have not previously appeared in UK cinemas (though two have been released on DVD). According to IMDb, L’odyssée is being screened in a 2.66 : 1 ratio and it was shot digitally on a 6K Red camera. I’m not sure about the ratio at the screening I attended, but you’d expect an epic presentation for Cousteau’s story of exploration and overall the film doesn’t disappoint. There are three major stars (perhaps two of them are ‘star actors’). Lambert Wilson has the trickiest job as ‘JYC’ (Cousteau) and since the action begins around 1949 when Cousteau was approaching 40 and finishes when he is approaching 70. Wilson himself is in his late 50s. Audrey Tautou faces a similar long haul but she has the advantage of being nearer in age to Cousteau’s wife Simone in 1949 and with make-up and wigs she approaches 60 more easily. She also doesn’t appear on screen as frequently (one of the major minuses of the film for me). The third major character is Cousteau’s younger son Philippe played as an adult by Pierre Niney, highly praised on this blog for his role in Frantz (France-Germany 2016). Sporting very fetching 70s facial hair, Niney is a strong presence in the second half of the film.
As I’ve indicated, this is a partial biopic, but that is only one of the genre repertoires that Salle draws on. Perhaps just as important is the mix of epic adventure/exploration and natural history film/environmental polemic. I was struck with the similarity in parts to the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) with Cousteau seeking funding for his expeditions and then risking everything in physical encounters with seas, storms and sharks. The underwater scenes in the film are definitely one of its attractions and the budget was partly spent on location shooting in the Bahamas, Croatia, South Africa and Antarctica. The weakness of the narrative is the final genre repertoire, the family or personal drama. Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘JYC’ was unable to be the father and husband that his wife and sons expected. The narrative also suggests that his desire to succeed in his ambitious ventures led him to become too interested in the money that could be earned and that he exploited his family and loyal crew members. (At the same time, he is unaware just how expensive his ambitious plans have become.) There isn’t time to explore this and there is quite a telling moment when Cousteau is in the US for his television commitments and his elder son phones to tell him that his father has died. JYC refuses to return to France immediately. This feels like an insertion of a little shorthand scene to stand in for a whole sub-narrative. The film’s script was written by Salle and Laurent Turner and is based on two books, one by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the surviving older son who has carried on the family business and the other by the captain of the Cousteau ship, the Calypso. On this basis, there must be a strong factual starting point to what appears on screen. I think I would argue that despite its flaws, there is a great deal to commend about L’odyssée. It boasts wonderful cinematography by Matias Boucard and a music score by the celebrated Alexandre Desplat. You should seek out the biggest screen you can find.
We watched the film at the new arts centre in Halifax, the Square Chapel, in the smaller ‘Copper’ auditorium which is also used for theatrical productions. It’s good to be in a new cinema space and we were impressed to see how busy it was for a Friday morning screening. The downside is that films are presented without masking – the CinemaScope film was shown on a standard widescreen ratio screen so there were visible white bars above and below the image. Someone once tried to tell me that nobody notices this, but sitting two rows from the front they were clearly visible to us. Please, cinemas – bring back masking!