With his trademark red cap and winning blend of Gallic charm, scientific gravitas and deep-sea diving derring-do, Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-97) remained an enduring fixture on the cultural horizon of the 20th century for a period of almost five decades, a fervent advocate for marine conservation famed for his crucial role in the invention of the aqualung.
Despite the raft of movies, television episodes and tie-in book publications bearing his name, it’s easy to overlook Cousteau’s considerable accomplishments as a filmmaker. As the towering figurehead of a seaborne documentary collective comprised of the assorted crewmembers of his ship Calypso, he led audiences on fantastical journeys into uncharted waters while creating a fantasy world of exploration and adventure across and beneath the seven seas, in which he cast himself as the star of his own narrative.
It’s a story from which his wife Simone, always on deck but seldom on screen, remained largely absent. However, as the new biopic The Odyssey reveals, his life off-camera and on dry land was just as turbulent as it was beneath the waves.
Its arrival on UK shores provides a wonderful opportunity to cast our eyes back over the highs and lows of a remarkable film and television output.
18 Metres Deep (Par dix-huit mètres de fond, 1942)
A 15-minute short made just prior to him embarking on the development of the aqualung in the winter of 1942, Cousteau’s first film is a landmark in underwater cinematography. Realised entirely without any breathing apparatuses and with a waterproof camera created by Léon Vèche, it was shot by and starred Cousteau and fellow diving compadres Frédéric Dumas and Philippe Tailliez as the three plunged deep beneath the waves of the Mediterranean waters close to their base in Toulon.
The footage was subsequently assembled and narrated by Cousteau himself. The poetic mood the film establishes is unfortunately punctured by constant fish harpooning scenes, but at least there’s some comfort in knowing that these particular Frenchmen didn’t go hungry during the Nazi occupation years.
The Silent World (Le Monde du silence, 1956)
This watershed full-colour immersion into the fantastical undersea realm that Cousteau effectively claimed as his own also marked the feature debut of Louis Malle, credited as co-director. For almost 50 years, until Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, it remained the only documentary to win the Palme d’Or award at Cannes, and also received the Academy Award for best documentary feature.
One sequence in particular, however, makes for incredibly harrowing viewing, when the Calypso accidentally rams into and kills a sperm whale calf as the ship nudges forward to afford a better glimpse through its underwater observation deck. An ocean of carnage erupts as swarms of sharks are attracted by the blood, which are then mercilessly hauled onto the decks and butchered by the crew.
Following criticism for the scene, Cousteau dramatically revised his attitudes to sharks, whales and marine conservation in general, as shown in his later Cries from the Deep (1981), shot off Canada’s overfished Atlantic provinces of Labrador and Newfoundland, which features several scenes of Team Cousteau liberating humpback whales ensnared in drift nets and discarded fishing lines.
World without Sun (Le Monde sans soleil, 1964)
Cousteau’s bizarre attempt to colonise the bottom of the Red Sea off Sudan has a distinctly retro sci-fi air, as his team of “Oceanauts” go about their lives 10 metres down in the claustrophobic confines of their Conshelf Two seabase, making occasional forays to survey their underwater environs and its denizens.
Certain scenes elicited suspicions that the whole endeavour might have been a hoax, however – none less so than the moment when, after a stunning descent into the ocean depths, the diving saucer piloted by Cousteau and his long-serving companion Falco emerges into an underwater cavern full of oxygen.
In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther took the filmmaker to task, observing “the shot is made from the exterior by a camera that has presumably arrived ahead of the saucer and is already waiting in that cavern beneath the sea”, although he did concede that “this otherwise plausible film… is a delightful experience – an achievement of pictorial poetry.”
Voyage to the Edge of the World (Voyage au bout du monde, 1975)
Cousteau’s third documentary feature charts the first dedicated trip to explore the undersea environment of Antarctica, where his team discover an astonishing abundance of sea life, much of it captured on film for the first time. It has a darker undercurrent than Cousteau’s previous work due to the death of crewmember Michel Laval during its production, struck by the rotor-blade of a helicopter (mercifully off-camera).
Cousteau would lose his own son, Philippe, to a flying boat crash four years later, highlighting the hazardous nature of his working methods. The adventures among the pristine landscapes of ice and rock at the end of the world climax, however, in rapturous fashion, in a mesmerising sequence where his divers venture into a crystalline warren within an iceberg.
Clipperton: The Island Time Forgot (Clipperton: île de la solitude, 1981)
At a time when Cousteau’s interest in marine protection was at its highest, public interest in his adventures had dropped off from the peak of his pioneering television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1966-76), and with it financing opportunities. Cousteau was also deeply depressed by the death of Philippe, so it is little surprise that the penultimate episode of the PBS-funded The Cousteau Odyssey (1976-81) should be such a relentlessly pessimistic statement on humankind’s disruptive relationship with nature’s life-cycles.
Its setting is the barren coral atoll of Clipperton, 670 miles southwest of Mexico, surrounded by shipwrecks and home to little else than hordes of scuttling crabs and a cacophony of seabirds. Cousteau’s depiction of the island’s ecology is as brutal and unflinching as his account of its last human inhabitants, evacuated in 1917 after the lighthouse-keeper of an isolated community went mad, terrorising and abusing the surviving women and their children before they turned on him with a hammer.
The standout moment is the divers’ perilous descent into the murky bowels of the stagnant lagoon at the island’s dark heart, whose water has acidified and scalds their skins due to the rotting vegetation, organic matter and seabird guano that has accumulated in its depths. The episode ends with a suitably apocalyptic coda, with a shot of a crab crawling over a doll’s head, which lies among the mounds of plastic debris that have washed up on Clipperton’s shores.
Watch the trailer for The Odyssey (2016)