The Odyssey review – exploring Jacques Cousteau’s life aquatic

This biopic of the French oceanographer is beautifully filmed, but sometimes flounders

The Odyssey
    
Director: Jérôme Salle
Cert: 12A
Genre: Biography
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Pierre Niney, Audrey Tautou
Running Time: 2 hrs 3 mins

One for the hauntologists. The cod-French voiceovers at the beginning of Spongebob Squarepants episodes and Wes Anderson's 2004 dramedy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou speak to the lingering cultural influence of Jacques Yves Cousteau. Yet the man himself – and his work – have disappeared entirely.

In 1956, the French oceanographer's The Silent World won the Palme d'Or (it remained the only documentary to take home the Cannes prize until Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.) The groundbreaking azure underwater photography of his landmark TV series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was incomparably spectacular during the 1960s when colour television was still a novelty.

Jérôme Salle's big-budget biopic L'Odyssée is at its best when recreating Cousteau's oceanic adventures. An epic five-month $21 million shoot swims with sharks in the Bahamas and braves the icy waters of the Antarctic.

The biopic around these expeditions takes a cradle-to-grave approach – replete with early flash-forward – as we move from Cousteau’s early co-invention of the aqualung and onwards toward a final family tragedy. We even get a Batsuit moment when, donning his iconic red beanie for the first time, Cousteau declares: “It’s telegenic!”


Ignore the title: in terms of Greek mythology, Salle’s film is more Oedipal than Homeric. Much of the drama concerns Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) and his son, Philippe (Pierre Niney). The latter struggles to escape the shadow cast by his old man, but, as a fellow oceanographer and the cinematographer for his father’s films, this ultimately proves impossible.

Phillippe's independence is not the only casualty of Jacques's grandiose plans, which include such ambitious follies as a media empire and an undersea city where aquamen will live. The long-suffering Madame Cousteau (Andrey Tautou) is left to run the family's iconic vessel the Calypso, while her husband repeatedly dallies elsewhere. She finally puts her foot down: when he brings one of his many girlfriends on board, she demands that he confine his affairs to dry land.

Cousteau’s conversion to environmentalism, at Phillippe’s insistence, is dramatised in a row over sea lions. It’s one of the more succinct scenes in a biopic that struggles to accommodate adventures, Cousteau’s financial difficulties, family soap opera, and decades. The actors work hard, the ageing make-up is impressive, and Matias Boucard’s cinematography is handsome, but the film flounders out of water.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic