Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 20, 2021 7:45 pm 
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capsule for Mill Valley:



From adventurer to ecologist to prescient profit of doom

Liz Garbus is a frantically productive doc maker known for among others [url=""]Bobby Fisher Against the World[/url] (2011) and What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) Made in collaboration with the Cousteau Society and co-produced by Cousteau’s widow Francine and children Diane and Pierre-Yves, this documentary could risk feeling like a whitewashed, official version of Cousteau’s life, a work that aims "to burnish a legend" rather than "explore ... personal depths" (The Wrap;"). But his failings are here, and this is, however conventional, a richly illustrated depiction of an immensely important man in his time whose clarion cries are more relevant than ever today.

Why do I feel sometimes, though, that I've been fed most of this information before? Because I saw it thoroughly rehearsed in dramatized form in Paris in the film [url=""]L'odyssée (Jérôme Salle 2016)[/url], starring the excellent Lambert Wilson and Pierre Niney, which I saw a second time in the Rendez-Vous at Lincoln Center in 2017. No matter: this is the authoritative, authorized documentary version, with access to the wealth of lifelong film documentation that's available. "Je m'amuse," Cousteau says in one of the many recordings. "I'm having fun." And it is fun and inspiring to watch him, even when he is saddened and his vision turns dark.

Cousteau got a Pathé camera at age 12; it helped conquer his shyness. Later a very bad car accident that broke 12 bones led him to swim: it helped him heal. Then he started to dive, and to photograph, and the rest is history.

He was a naval officer, hence "Captain Cousteau." At first he began diving with two others. The "three musketeers of the sea" ("Les Mousqemers") fellow naval officer, Philippe Tailliez, Maurice Fargues. they were reduced to two when they started going deep and Sept. 17 1947 one of them, Fargues died going down 120 meters, using the new aqualung to set a world record for diving depth; they had not yet learned (one would have liked more about this whole process) that at such depths consciousness is affected and a diver can endanger himself without knowing it (undersea high).

His documentary film The Silent World (1957) was immensely popular. His show on ABC "The Undersea world of Jacques Cousteau" (1966-1976) became one of the most popular television shows of all time. An important aspect of the success was this quintessentially French guy's and his sons' ability to function fluently in English. `The show, which was managed to be both popular and urgently important, unveiled the wonders of the sea, and, gradually, its unmaking. The Cousteau family were and are formidable defenders of this huge underwater part of planet Earth. Jacques was early in recognizing that the sea had been trashed; the fragility and importance of coral reefs; the disintegration of icebergs. He saw how the planet's climate hinges on the condition of Antarctica: he saw it all, forty years ago, global warming, droughts in the United States, famine in Africa.

Calypso (rechristened no doubt) was "basically a mine-sweeper;" they got it in 1950 art a bargain price with a grant from a wealthy conservative British supporter, Thomas Loel Guinness. "It's a person not a boat," Cousteau said. It became the heart of his world as an explorer, impresario, filmmaker: The Life Aquatic with Jacques Cousteau. Their first voyage had "le partum de l'aventure, de la nouveauté, l'iréel" (the fragrance of adventure novelty, the unreal).

Calypso was an empire, Jacques-Yves the king. His sons Jean-Michel (more a manager) and Philippe (an explorer like their father) were also part of the world. His wife Simone was a manager, wedded not to the sea but to the boat, always on board, Jeanne-Claude to his Christo, the only women on board, avoiding being in the films, but in photographs plainly having a good time, and said to have been a good diver.

Cousteau seemed about to sell out to the petroleum industry - he did discover major oil in the Persian Gulf - but he saved himself from such a sellout by beginning his ABC television show "The Underwater World," in 1968. "[url=""]On January 8, 1968[/url], "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" debuted on ABC. The show is vintage Cousteau, featuring the French adventurer-slash-scientist wearing a red cap, a skimpy bathing suit, and smoking like a chimney." (He and his two sons wore red caps and black outfits, their uniform. He had lean dash and dazzle, pearl-gray swept-back hair, flashing teeth.) Chris Higgins: "If you've seen The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and you haven't seen the Cousteau films, you're in for a treat."

When Cousteau began on American television he was 58, and he did not look young. Who was this old French guy? The audience soon learned. And then Cousteau became a crusader for ecology, for saving the ruined, trashed sea. And he founded The Cousteau Society. He claimed 160,000 members in the late seventies; now it has 50,000. Perhaps it is outstripped by son Jean-Michel in 1999.

He was devastated by the death in a private seaplane crash of his son Philippe at 39 in 1979. He blamed himself for allowing his son to fly, and declared that his punishment would be that he would work to the end. It's said he aged ten years, and became more pessimistic about the future of the sea. We learn that ABC dropped Cousteau's specials in the late seventies "because he was getting too dark."

He was fed up with the cult of his own personality and more and more hopeless about saving the planet, which he thought was too late. "We spoil the planet every day, more and more."

At this point the film introduces Cousteau's second wife, Francine, a 41-year-old French woman diver who married him when he was 80, a year after his wife Simone died of cancer at 71. But wait! His two children with Francine were born in 1980 and 1980, long before his wife Simone died. The relationship with Francine was not talked about, but everyone knew about it. On board. But Simone kept secret how sick she was and went on a last Calypso voyage when she was dying, with widespread cancer. She said theCalypso was the reason why she was alive. The young kids whom Francine had when Cousteau was 70 may have revived his smile. They are vibrant kids - divers, of course.

The film ends on a triumphal note against the odds. Cousteau is successful in getting a multi-nation treaty to leave Antarctica intact for 50 years. He is a major figure at Rio 1992, the earth conference, the only one standing as an equal of heads of state. He is heard expressing optimism about mankind's ability to learn. And he gets a funeral at Notre Dame cathedral. His eighties were spectacular. he had an impressive old age. Let's hope his optimism is validated, not his pessimism. The film ought to have ended on a stronger, more honest note; it would have been fairer to the man's legacy of intense eco-awareness to do that. But he wouldn't even have liked the title. He was insistent that his work was not about him.

Not deeply searching (pun intended) but perhaps at least as good as the also somewhat flat and hagiographic, longer (122 min.) French language dramatization by Jérôme Salle , L'odyssée, with Lambert Wilson as Jacques-Ive, in which I noticed Pierre Niney (dashing as son Philippe) first emerging clearly as a star in 2016 (shown in France); not widely seen in the US.

Becoming Cousteau 91 mins., debuted at Telluride Sept. 2, 2021, showing also at Toronto Sept. 11, Camden, Hamptons ,London and Mill Valley in October. Screened as part of Mill Valley Film Festival. US release Oct. 22, 2o21.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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