Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 25, 2016 1:48 am 
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Shallow waters

This biopic follows the career of the famous French undersea explorer and maker of TV documentaries Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He was a pioneer who made the world of water his domain. Commander Cousteau (Lambert Wilson), depicted here with his two sons Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe) and Philippe (Pierre Niney) and his wife Simone (Audrey Tautou), was a naval officer, member of the Académie Française, scientist, innovator (most notably of the aqualung), explorer, conservationist and indefatigable public figure as well known in America and beyond as in his native France. Salle has made a grand and glorious film full of energy and hope and enlivened by big, bright, open images of sun and sea, with some breathtaking underwater photography. The cinematography by Matias Boucard is luminous, the music by Alexandre Desplat sweeping.

And yet this movie based on books by Jean-Michel and Albert Falco takes on a routine air early on and winds up being at times on the flat and disappointing side, too timid in its exploration of rough truths, too hagiographic all the rest of the time. Salle's handsome, beautifully filmed movie has a few impressive diving sequences, but not many and only a couple that are awesome. But maybe that wasn't the point. Public issues and personal problems are not ignored. The trouble is that throughout, the film seems showy and artificial. It winds up feeling like a missed opportunity: too often the ceremonial overtakes the dramatic, and overall a bit on the bland side. Salle's Odyssey is a spectacle that will delight fans of ocean photography and of Cousteau. It's just not one of the year's compelling dramatic films.

The film doesn't hesitate to depict some of Cousteau's sad, dark times and conflicts with Simone and Philippe. Tautou and Niney shine, and this is further proof that Niney has the makings of a big star, who's perhaps at his most dashing and sexy on screen yet as Philippe. Philippe's conflict with his father began when the brothers were sent off to boarding school, which he considered "abandonment." It's clear the Commander has some large blind spots and a giant ego, and loves fame as much as he loves nature. Niney provides glamor and excitement as well as eye candy (the glowing skin, the sculptured torso, the glossy locks, the steamy glances), but the clash of father and son is powerful dramatic material that the film unfortunately only touches on.

There are important historical themes here. First of all Cousteau begins diving at a time when it was all new. He and his collaborators (a crew lovingly satirized in Wes Anderson's endearing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou ), with the big boat The Calypso, had to develop the aqualung, to breathe underwater, and the pressure-resistant cameras they used to photography the marvels they found. And then Cousteau had to develop a career - the big American contract to make films to be shown on TV. Over the decades, we see how this innovator started to become outmoded.

The height of Cousteau's fame comes through the Palme d'Or-awarded film (based on his first book), The Silent World, co-directed with Louis Malle; and then, starting in the Sixties, for decades the "Voyages of the Calypso" TV series was standard fare in the US and elsewhere.

The film gradually reveals the extreme naivety of the Calypso crew, who ignored how they were destroying the world they were observing. Cousteau is aware of ecological issues early on, but does work for petroleum interests because he needs financing - and that's an issue from the start, when Simone sells all her jewels to buy the Calypso. Later, the Commander forgets about ecology and cheats on his wife. This behavior causes a serious rift with Philippe, who disappears for four years - and Niney is missed. But they make up.

Fabien Lemercier comments on that L'Odyssée "doesn’t dig too deeply, so as to preserve the audiences’ empathy for its characters." That's precisely the trouble with this beautiful, ambitious, not unrealistic but still thoroughly timid movie. Commander Cousteau dives under the waters, director Salle stays on the surface.

L'odyssée/The Odyssey, 122 mins., debuted 23 Aug. 2016 at the Festival du Film Francophone d'Angoulême, also showing at four other festivals, and released in French Cinemas 12 Oct. by Wild Bunch. French critical response was positive but not exceptional (AlloCiné press rating 3.4). Les Inrocks, Le Figaro, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur, and Le Monde] all published reviews expressing serious disappointment. See the lively take-down in Le Nouvel Observateur and the explication of the more complex issues in LIbération.

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