Jacob Richardson | 20/03/2017
Jerome Salley’s affecting, but unstructured, star-studded biopic about legendary ocean-going adventurer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau is as beautiful and erratic as the man himself.
Opening the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival in Brisbane this year was the 2016 film, The Odyssey. It follows the life (or at least, the post-navy life) of Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau is an explorer of ocean depths. He designed and built his own “aqua-lungs”, and became a celebrated filmmaker. Interestingly, his exploits also inspired Bill Murray’s titular character in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. This biopic charts the rise, fall, and rise again of Cousteau’s popularity and fortunes.
Salley’s film is an interesting one in terms of structure. Some of the elements and plot threads it picks up on seem wildly out of keeping with a typical narrative format, and many plot points that are picked up are soon dropped with little to no explanation. Besides these anomalies, the film doesn’t come to a natural end. Bookended by the death of his eldest son Phillipe (Pierre Niney), we’re filled with a sense of dread throughout. By the time the terrible moment comes, however, we’re expecting some sort of explosive, cataclysmic event. The audience’s emotions should be put through the wringer, just as Cousteau and the rest of his family’s are, but Salley’s pacing leaves the remaining 5 minutes of film lackluster. He simply doesn’t know how to handle the aftermath, and it means that the film peters off with a whimper rather than a bang.
Nevertheless, some of the acting is extraordinary. As Cousteau, Lambert Wilson imbues even tiny gestures with a sense of the grandiose; appropriate for a man who believed everything he did to be groundbreaking. Audrey Tatou, by comparison, plays a much more grounded character, and her portrayal of Simone is one full of quiet, subtle moments. Pierre-Niney also makes quite a statement. If most of his performance involves him pouting at the camera and running his hands through his hair, it’s a testament to his presence on the screen that we don’t really mind. The other characters all take a decided back seat to this trio; which is a shame, because there are some great actors here. It would have been nice to learn a little more about Chloe Hirschman’s Jan Cousteau (particularly given that Hirschman is such a superb actress), or about Phillipe’s broher Jean-Michel.
The cinematography is striking. While Matias Boucard may not do anything groundbreaking above ground, some of the set pieces and sequences beneath the sea are stunning to behold. You’ll find yourself getting swept up in the majesty of this underwater paradise.
It’s a beautiful picture, anchored with some strong performances, but hampered by its erratic gaze. Perhaps it’s fitting, given that it’s a tale of Jacques Cousteau, but here the flashy performances and cinematography feel like they could be wiped from the board at any time. It’s not stable, but it works – just. And sometimes those near failures are the most amazing to watch.