'Ice and the Sky' ('La Glace et le Ciel'): Cannes Review

Ice and the Sky Still 2015
The granddad of climate-change science gets his moment in the spotlight

The Oscar-winning director of 'March of the Penguins' returns to Antarctica for his latest feature, which looks at the life of French glaciologist Claude Lorius

Luc Jacquet, the Oscar-winning director of international smash hit March of the Penguins, goes back to Antarctica for his latest documentary, Ice and the Sky (La Glace et le Ciel). But instead of focusing on cute critters in the snow, the film looks at the life and many accomplishments of one man: French polar explorer and glaciologist Claude Lorius. Since he was the first one, using dating of ice cores extracted in Antarctica, to prove that climate change can be attributed to humans all the way back in a 1985 Nature cover story oddly never mentioned in the film – it’s not a surprise that Jacquet’s feature has something of an activist, call-to-arms edge.

But in terms of its form, the film is rather classically assembled, combining a voice-over narration with archive material (some of it never previously seen) and spectacularly filmed and staged shots of the now 83-year-old Lorius as he witnesses the havoc caused by the climate change he saw coming some 30 years ago in various locales around the world. Released in France Oct. 21, this rather serious-minded Cannes closer will be of interest abroad as well, though the film is much likelier to appeal to discerning viewers who ate up films such as An Inconvenient Truth than to the family audiences that made Penguins such a phenomenon.   

Like in Jacquet’s last film, Once Upon a Forest, the gravitas-filled tones of Michel Papineschi again provide a voice-over that holds the entire enterprise together, with Papineschi speaking in the first person, as if he were Lorius, to recount his memories of his exploits and discoveries. The text is occasionally poetic and never too technical – indeed, the film might have benefited from a smidgen more on the science behind glaciology  and overall very accessible, even for adult audiences with no scientific background whatsoever, though those who don't believe in climate change will find nothing here that speaks to their (according to Lorius, intentionally ill-informed) points of view.

After a brief introduction, the film recounts Lorius’ exploits as a polar explorer, mostly in chronological order starting in October 1956, when the then 23-year-old left for his first research trip to Antarctica. As in the rest of the film, the voice-over is combined with archive footage from a multitude of sources, including newsreel material and footage shot by the expedition’s own crew, including some rolls from the Lorius family’s archives that were never even developed. The optimism of the 1950s and 1960s is quickly sketched, as “machines that were invented for war were now used by science,” and scientific progress seemed to have only benefits and no apparent cost.

Roughly the first half hour is dedicated to Claude’s first polar experience at the French Charcot Base, which would prove to be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Antarctica (“I shall forever be 23,” he says about the formative power of that first expedition). Lorius and two others spent a year in a single 250-square-foot underground space, heated to just 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which was a 28-day trek from the Antarctic coast. It’s here that Lorius laid the groundwork for his later discoveries, initially mapping the mountains and valleys of the continent that lay hidden under 6500 feet of snow and ice. Beautifully described in a voice-over passage that hints at the reason why someone would put up with these inhuman conditions for months on end, Lorius explains that science “offers the possibility to unearth and see what is normally invisible,” such as the landmasses under the ice, and that “the thirst for knowledge keeps us from going insane.”

A brief animated segment explains his study of snow crystals, which would prove vital for his ideas on ice cores and drilling that would feed into subsequent polar expeditions. These include one in 1959 he was able to do in lieu of military service, about which Lorius states that the weather was so brutal that “windless days with a temperature of ­minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit started to feel like a heat wave,” and a harrowing experience in the 1970s when a U.S. plane meant to get them out of Antarctica caught fire as it took off and a second plane, brought in to replace the first, then suffered a similar fate.

The scientist’s biggest breakthrough was the fortunate discovery that the chemical composition of snow allowed him to calculate the exact temperature on the day it fell, which means that samples from thousands of years ago could be surveyed to get an idea of the rise and fall of temperatures over extended periods of time (the documentary shows samples up to 400,000 years old). He thus found proof for climatologists’ hypothesis that our planet went through hot and cold periods of about 100,000 years each, which in turn allowed him to prove that the rate of climate change over the last 100 years is not a normal variation in temperature, and must thus be caused by man.

Though a scientist first, Lorius is clearly a man who believes in peace between the nations, having led a Franco-U.S.-Soviet South Pole expedition at the height of the Cold War. With the help of Jacquet, the protagonist clearly hopes that this documentary will generate debate and, hopefully, change. Gorgeously choreographed shots, many of them filmed with the help of drones by outstanding cinematographer Stéphane Martin, show Lorius surveying the melting water of glaciers or the burning forests that are the result of climate change. Entirely wordless, they convey the idea that the beauty-filled natural world indeed seems to be slipping away from the old man who first suggested this would happen and who now worries about what kind of world his grandchildren will be living in. However, some shots of the protagonist standing knee-deep in expanses of water are borderline on-the-nose, clearly suggesting what awaits people living in coastal areas, but at the same time making the scientist look much less dignified than in all the other material; not a very wise decision in a documentary that needs all the authority it can muster to tell this particular story.  

Otherwise, editor Stephane Mazalaigue impressively maintains the delicate balance between narration and new and pre-existing footage of Lorius, while the latter, who was often silent, is greatly enhanced by expert, very atmospheric soundwork. Composer Cyrille Aufort’s score helps ensure that the rhythm doesn’t lag or things become too dry and scientific, with the frequent use of percussion foregrounding the adventurous elements of Lorius’ amazing life story.

Production companies: Eskwad, Wild-Touch Productions, Pathe, Kering, CNRS Images

Writer-Director: Luc Jacquet

Producer: Richard Grandpierre

Co-producers: Romain Le Grand, Vivien Aslanian

Director of photography: Stephane Martin

Editor: Stephane Mazalaigue

Music: Cyrille Aufort

Sales: Wild Bunch


No rating, 89 minutes