The Odyssey (L’odyssée)

France (2016) Dir. Jérôme Salle

Jacques Cousteau is a name that many young people today might not be familiar with as much as us oldies are. The legendary oceanographer, diver, inventor, and proto eco-warrior was a global icon, famed for his groundbreaking films and TV documentaries that took us to the depths of the ocean floor for the first time. But how much do we really known but the man known as The Captain?

The Odyssey opens in 1979 with the tragic death of Philippe Cousteau (Pierre Niney) when his seaplane crashed into the ocean during a flight home, leading to a flashback to 1949 to when young Philippe was enjoying a tropical summer break with his family, older brother Jean-Michel, mother Simone (Audrey Tautou) and father Jacques (Lambert Wilson), the time spent swimming and exploring the undersea wonders.

Inspired by these wonders, Jacques decides to quit the navy and start a new career as a chronicler of the ocean and the world around it, buying his own boat, hiring his own crew and gaining funding by agreeing to make films funded by international TV stations. But Jacques myopic determination and expanding fame sees his family life suffer and his fortunes unable to match his ambitions.  

Consider his international renown and influence on naturalist filmmakers, this might read like a very reductive summary of his storied life and achievements. I’m sure that Jérôme Salle intended for this film to be a celebration and revelatory bio-pic on its fascinating subject but the “bio” remit of the pic is hugely compromised and largely skipped over in favour of a basic timeline re-enactment of his professional and personal highs and lows.

Since Salle doesn’t really tells us much about who Cousteau is, for any younger readers, the simplest explanation is to compare him to an aquatic David Attenborough in terms of what he taught us about ocean life and the nature found in various exotic locations most people would never get to see in their lifetime. In later years, encouraged by Philippe, Cousteau began a foundation to save the oceans and from man made pollution.  

Again, this is lazily reductive but Salle doesn’t offer much more than this, except that as a father and husband Cousteau isn’t shown in the same glowing light as he was in public. Serving as the de facto story arc is the fractious relationship Cousteau had with Philippe – favouring him over Jean-Michel because of his shared interest in diving but never showing him any reciprocal love.

It began when Cousteau and Simone began plotting the first of their journeys with their new ship the Calypso, which was paid for by Simone pawning her mother’s jewellery, which meant sending their sons to boarding school. With Philippe expecting to join the expedition this broke his heart, marking the first of many conflicts between father and son.

To make matters worse, it would be Simone who wrote to the boys and not their father, something Philippe couldn’t easily forget. This paints Cousteau as the nominal villain of the story, along with his half hearted support of Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe) in his own endeavours and his cheating on Simone with younger women, but he was never actually malicious about it, more oblivious really as he was too busy enjoying living the dream and assumed they were too.

By way of balance, Philippe is portrayed as a bit of a brat at times, getting carried away with his own sense of self-importance as the son of the captain, which caused friction with some of the crew, but he soon grew out of it. Simone is also a curious figure – gradually becoming bored and bitter over time, she refuses to leave “her home”, the Calypso, and remains part of the crew (the sole female) despite the growing animus between her and her husband.

So why, with all this readymade, and presumably fact based drama just waiting to burn up the screen, is The Odyssey such a placid film? True, it would have been a huge cliché for Salle to destroy the myth of Cousteau by portraying him as real life louse in contrast to his revered public persona, so he offers us the alternative of reflecting on the very thing Cousteau was known for instead.

And if ever there was a reason to watch this film, the visuals are it. Mere words cannot do justice to the stunning beauty of the underwater photography from Matias Boucard –  the ethereal quality of the frequently used but never dull tableaux of divers against a startling blue backdrop as if they were floating in space is worth the price of admission alone.

Even when the camera is above the surface, everything is gloriously shot and pristine in presentation, be it the busy streets of New York, the snowy tundra of the Antarctic or the sun kissed allure of the tropics. Remarkable, this clearly modern veneer does nothing to compromise the replication of the various time periods replicated across this three decades tale to complete the immersive experience.

It is never easy for any actor to assume the role of a real life legend and I feel assured that Lambert Wilson’s performance was credible in capturing the essence of Cousteau as per Salle’s vision. In truth, Pierre Niney is the dominate player here as the tragic Philippe, making this more about him that his father. Audrey Tautou was as watchable as ever but the role of Simone just wasn’t demanding enough of her talents, leaving her to mainly smoke drink and moan a lot.

Clearly The Odyssey was too ambitious a title for Salle to live up to, delivering less an epic journey looking into what is assuredly a fascinating life and more a ponderous but visually stunning slog of a bus ride. The one thing we take away from this film is that 40 years on, man is still polluting the ocean despite someone of Cousteau’s prominence insisting we do something about it.