• Lambert Wilson as Jacques Cousteau in ‘The Odyssey’. (Wild Bunch)Source: Wild Bunch
Critic Travis Johnson loves watching movies and being underwater. With ‘The Odyssey’, he finally gets to do both – sort of.
Travis Johnson

6 Jul 2020 - 11:26 AM  UPDATED 6 Jul 2020 - 11:59 AM

Funnily enough, it was movies that kept me out of the ocean for more than 20 years.

When you show an imaginative kid from a land-locked country town Jaws at a formative age, that’s going to leave a mark. And the mark in question is the firm belief, completely unconnected to reality, that every ocean is filled with toothy monsters hell-bent on devouring any hapless swimmer unlucky enough to cross their path, and me in particular. (If only for the irony – I had visions of my last words as I bled out being some variation of “I told you so!”)

Thus the ocean and I remained strangers for decades, until a buddy took up scuba diving a few years back and seemed to be having an absolute blast, and I decided that limiting your life experiences on the basis of irrational fear was a pretty dumb way to go about things, and so I took the plunge – literally.

It took some doing – you will hear that John Williams score claw its way up your brainstem an awful lot during your early dives – but it’s totally worth it. Scuba diving is one of the most amazing things you’ll ever do. You’re literally entering an alien world, wholly dependent on a few lengths of rubber and a can of pressurised air for your very survival, pitting your will, skill and gumption against a hostile environment where humans simply are not meant to survive.

The pay off, though? Miracles. You’ll see things most people don’t – at least not in the flesh. Bizarre creatures and exotic underwater landscapes backgrounded by an indigo-blue infinity stretching off in every direction. It’s the closest most of us will ever come to exploring another planet. I’ll never see C-beams glitter in the darkness near Tannhauser Gate, but I’ve watched the sun rise while sitting on the ocean floor six metres below the surface, and it was near mystical.

The Odyssey understands this. Directed by Jérôme Salle (The Tourist, Zulu), this biopic of legendary oceanographer Jacques Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) traces the underwater explorer’s life from shortly after World War II through his heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, when he and his crew travelled the seven seas in the fabled research vessel, Calypso, and the world marvelled at the underwater footage he unveiled in award-winning films such as The Silent World (1956, co-directed with Louis Malle), which remained the only documentary to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes until Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004; and the beloved television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a weekend afternoon staple for generations.

While The Odyssey deals with Cousteau’s personal dramas as he clashes with his wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) over both his oceanic obsessions and his infidelities, and we see his sons Philippe (Pierre Niney) and Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe) grapple with earning their father’s esteem, the film is at its best when it abandons such terrestrial concerns and plunges us into the mysterious deep, with Salle and his underwater director of photography, Peter Zuccarini, taking us over a sheer drop-off and through a school of rays in the Mediterranean, or in amongst a group of playful sea lions frolicking in a kelp forest, or into the vast silence beneath the Antarctic ice shelf.

To be fair, there’s the occasional moment of substandard CGI, as when a group of Cousteau’s divers are menaced by schooling sharks that obviously come from the rendering farm rather than the briny depths, but we also get a truly awe-inspiring recreation of Cousteau’s pioneering underwater habitat – essentially a self-contained ocean bed village built to sound out the feasibility of subaquatic settlement.

In a way, The Odyssey is Cousteau coming full circle – it was Captain Cousteau’s ground-breaking underwater documentary work that captivated the world back in the day, and so it seems fitting that this film now exists to remind us of both his staggering achievements and the incredible alien, aquatic world that laps at every beach. Every diver knows that when they descend into the ocean they’re following Cousteau’s bubble trail – now The Odyssey lets a wider audience do the same.

The Odyssey airs on SBS World Movies Sunday 19 July at 6:15PM (available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast).

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