The Odyssey

Prize for the most beautiful film of the summer surely goes to Jerome Salle’s biopic of French diver, explorer, film-maker and ship’s captain, Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Director Salle comes up with some knock-outs: a throat-tightening shark cage scene, a beautiful family swim in an underwater cave, a show-stopper with a killer whale. At moments, you think of Le Grand Bleu, other times you feel like you’re on holiday.

As JYC himself, Lambert Wilson (whose name always reminds me of some rasping English fags, which is a bit harsh, like those fags, because he’s such an elegant chap) brings steely ambition to the role- you get a sense of this pioneer’s drive and ego, as well as his fantasies (creating an underwater city, no less, like a demented Bond baddie) and constant need for cash: making underwater movies is expensive; Simone is played, very nicely, by Audrey Tatou and their son Philippe is portrayed by rising star Pierre Niney, who himself played another French acronymic icon, Yves Saint Laurent, not so long ago.

Audrey’s Simone doesn’t get much to do, but does pose for some nice shots in 50s bathing suits but those old-school knitted swimming trunks really don’t do much for Wilson’s Cousteau. It’s taking shrinkage to a whole new level.

France has always had Marianne, that feminine figurehead symbol of French pride designed to represent the Republic – she’s been embodied over recent years by Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Laetetia Casta and Ines de la Fressange.

If they had a male equivalent, they’d probably have used Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Or Jacques Tati. In any case, someone called Jacques.

But it’s harder to think of a Frenchier person than Cousteau, whose undersea adventures exported a skinny, poetic, hardy, philosophical, liquid Frenchness all around the world. From the 1950s, when his film The Silent World became the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (as well as an Oscar) until well into the 1980s, Cousteau was a fixture and figurehead in popular culture.

His name might be fading from memory these days, but Cousteau was probably the most famous Frenchman on the planet at a certain point, more than Pompidou, more than Charles de Gaulle. Families around the globe gathered round their TV sets to watch his films, images which brought to life a hitherto hidden world of fabulous creatures and colours.

We forget how striking those pictures from the deep must have been – nowadays there are whole TV channels dedicated to such fishy things and scuba diving is an international sport, fleecing legions of gap yah Tristans and Imogens of their parents’ money for a three-day course on some previously idyllic Thai island where some Australian tells them: This is a mask, mate, and these are flippers. Cousteau not only invented the underwater cameras to capture the footage, he also invented the aqualung itself. That’s one busy Frenchman, even before he sets sail to make his movies.

All of this strikes home during The Odyssey, which concentrates on his years aboard his re-purposed ship Calypso accompanied by Simone, a loyal, hungry crew, and sometimes in the company of Philippe. The fractious father-son relationship forms the emotional core of the movie, although there is some dramatic drift when you feel we’re going nowhere in particular.

You also get to learn some stuff that, had they concentrated on it, might have made for a sexier film, such as Cousteau’s womanising and his secret second family. That’s been somewhat controversial in France, a bit like a biopic in which we find out David Attenborough has been running cocaine stashed inside pink Amazon river dolphins.

But, like I said, Commandant Cousteau is so French you’d expect him to have a couple of mistresses here and there. Other than his chief mistress of la mer, of course.

If the film can’t quite live up to the epic nature of its title, nor can it reach the depths its protagonist plumbed. But it is often gorgeous to behold, the music, from the ubiquitous Alexandre Desplat, is sumptuous and it’s a long, cool bath of summer Frenchness as well as a fascinating peak under the red beanie hat of a receding legend.

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