‘The Odyssey’ (‘L’Odyssee’): Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

The Odyssey - Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
Visually striking, but plumbs no depths.

This high-profile biopic of the legendary French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau is the closing film at San Sebastian 2016.

The curriculum vitae of Jacques Cousteau -- film maker, explorer, naval officer, inventor, businessman, conservationist and 1956 Palme d’Or winner, among other achievements -- suggest a more enthralling biopic than is delivered by Jerome Salle’s workmanlike The Odyssey, which explores Cousteau’s life with somewhat less depth and passion than its subject explored the oceans. Encompassing multiple locations including the Mediterranean, South Africa, the Antarctic and many others, shot with flair and much technical wizardry, and built around conflicting ideological attitudes to our endangered planet, film’s suggestively epic title doesn't feel entirely misjudged. But its wish to take on board the whole life leaves it feeling dissipated and dramatically thin.

Cousteau’s influence on the history of television is undeniable: starting from the 50s, TV viewers over the globe would gather round to marvel at his underwater documentaries, and in many cases these programs would not only have been viewer’s first exposure to documentary, but also to the exotic French accent. That was all a long time ago, and the project is taking a gamble on Cousteau’s international profile still being sufficiently high in English-speaking countries for a breakthrough. Sales are likely, but it will take extremely canny marketing -- of the kind that Cousteau himself was an expert -- to ensure they are followed by box office success. Release in France is scheduled for October 12.

The Odyssey is based on books about Cousteau as well as testimony gathered by Salle and his team. It opens, in one of the film’s few interesting conceits, with water as a place of death, potently recreating the 1979 plane crash involving Cousteau’s son Philippe (Pierre Niney, feted for his portrayal of Yves Saint-Laurent in Jalil Lespert’s 2014 biopic, and currently doing the rounds in Francois Ozon’s Frantz). The narrative, whose emotional crux is the shifting, troubled relationship between father and son, will bring us back to this point. It starts after World War 2 with the decision of the limitlessly ambitious Cousteau (Lambert Wilson -- Of Gods and Men, Sahara) to make a career of underwater documentaries: his ruthless intentions are signaled early on as he abandons onstage his stammering colleague Tailliez (Laurent Lucas).

Having purchased and restored the Calypso, the boat with which his name is synonymous, Cousteau, along with wife Simone (Audrey Tautou), eldest son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe), and a crew represented by the mariner’s ever-faithful sidekick Bebert (Vincent Heneine), set off to explore the oceans, and to bring them into the living rooms, of the world. The forlorn Philippe is abandoned to boarding school, left to cling miserably to a pair of his Dad’s diving goggles which will later make one appearance too many.

After this, things become highly episodic, charting Cousteau’s largely untroubled rise and rise as he Gallically charms money from the pockets of various patrons, including, interestingly, the underwater oil sector and, crucially, Americans, presented here in lazy stereotype.

Much of it is done via often deja vu musical ellipses, some more cleverly conceived than others. The script charts Cousteau’s business successes with only the briefest attention paid to the obstacles standing in his way, the film focusing on Cousteau as businessman more than one any of his other achievements; the occasional lack of cash, an affair which Simone learns about, and a pipe which he briefly adopts, are brushed aside with equal insouciance by both the script and by Cousteau, and do little to engage the viewer with either the man or his story.

Thus The Odyssey is more than mere hagiography, but being aware of its subject’s multiple faults is not enough to make him compelling as a character. Lambert Wilson, aided by terrific aging make-up and the streamlined, hawkish features that make him look like a highly idealized, tourist portrait version of the original, is convincingly devil-may-care throughout, a throwback to the clipped but derring-do heroes of the 40s. (The red hat, which was part of Cousteau’s carefully-crafted self-marketing, looks less persuasive atop Wilson, but there can be no finer silhouette when it comes to unhappily, and somewhat stagily, standing by a window.)

More interesting (and in sales terms, it was a smart move to devote so much screen time to him) is the troubled Philippe, essentially the only opposition to his Dad as well as the film’s only dramatic conflict. The relationship between father and son is the heart of the film, and a metaphor of our changing relationship to the oceans: while Cousteau embodies the old spirit of exploration and conquest, Philippe represents our (perhaps too-late) desire to conserve and protect, which means that the film feels dramatically pretty inert during the lengthy scenes during which the younger man is absent.

Initially playing the supportive wife to perfection, Simone soon becomes disillusioned by the years of life lived aboard the Calypso: But her role, as are the roles of the other women, is basically passive, and again the viewer’s attention is divided between Simone’s sufferings and Tatou's skillfully applied makeup as the years pass.

Where the film does deliver is on the visuals, a combination of on-location and CGI: although even here, a public spoilt by the mind-blowing submarine photography of the BBC and National Geographic may feel as though they’ve visited these silent, blue expanses before, but better. Two sequences, one involving loads of circling sharks and sequence involving a Philippe and whale in perfect balletic man/nature harmony, are especially striking, and there’s still enough underwater wonder to suggest something of the fascination and passion which drove Cousteau on.

The script doesn’t pass up on the chance to deliver its ecological message, as would only be fitting in the biopic of a man who was so instrumental in generating social awareness around the issue. As Alexandre Desplat’s orchestral score rises at the end, we see father and son finally come together in the common cause of saving the planet - a cause which it’s to be hoped that The Odyssey itself can make a small contribution.

Production companies: Paneuropeene, Fidelite Films, Casa Productions, Wild Bunch, TF1 Films Production
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Audrey Tautou, Pierre Niney, Benjamin Lavernhe
Director: Jerome Salle
Screenwriters: Jerome Salle, Laurent Turner
Producers: Nathalie Gastaldo, Philippe Godeau, Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missioner, Eric Vidart Loeb
Director of photography: Matias Boucard
Production designer: Laurent Ott
Editor: Stan Collet
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Casting: Gigi Akoka, Mito Skellern
Sales: Wild Bunch
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (closing film)

No rating, 122 minutes