Even though he died less than 20 years ago, the late Jacques Cousteau is a figure of almost mythical stature – his work and exploration into the world under the sea truly exposed it for the first time to everyone, and allowed a world to see the captivating creatures under the water. L’odyssée is a film that is frustrating with the sheer lack of depth it uses to examine Cousteau and his life – while there is probably an interesting and interestingly explorative biopic looking at the life of this famous man, L’odyssée is not it.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) has invented his scuba gear and become a hit around the world with his documentaries on the underwater world. Now, he wants to explore more and more, buying a new ship and setting out with his crew, including wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) and crewmate Bébart (Vincent Heneine), to make a series of underwater documentaries. However, relations are more strained with his son, Philippe (Pierre Niney), who has been packed off to boarding school as his parents explore in the Calpyso, and Cousteau’s journeys around the world threaten to damage their relationship irreparably.
L’odyssée deals with a lot of Cousteau’s life, from after he has invented scuba gear to his involvement in ecology and Philippe’s tragic death in a plane accident (not quite a spoiler, before you complain – the movie opens with this, and thus with the idea that the water is a place of death). However, there is something almost automatic in the way it explores his life – it is extremely episodic, to the point of almost just being a list of what he did and when.
This approach strips away much of the drama, and makes the viewing a bit of a challenge – there are scenes that deal with Cousteau’s affairs, his suddenly starting smoking a pipe, his bankruptcy, Philippe’s marriage – but they come and go so quickly that they feel like name checks for name checks sake. As a result, there is not much in the way of emotional engagement with the picture – Alexandre Desplat’s score (a touch more overbearing than usual, and suffering as a result) seems to tell us how to feel, but the feeling isn’t there.
A similar issue – the film starts out with the implication that it’ll be looking at Cousteau’s life with Philippe as a lens, if you will, but it is a viewpoint that it never really commits to. It’s a shame, really, because Philippe and his opposition to his father is the only real dramatic conflict of the picture. As a result, though, it doesn’t feel like much is happening when he’s off the screen.
Wilson and Niney are strong in their roles, but neither man is quite enough to lift the film, and it is telling that the film is at its best when they are with each other. The other actors are very under-served by the script, with Audrey Tautou being particularly wasted in her part and any other character not really worth the mention.
However, for a film detailing the life of a man who brought the underwater world to life, perhaps it is only fitting that the underwater sequences are some of the best in the film. A touch too much CGI can be a little off-putting, but scenes like Philippe filming a whale are beautiful enough to warrant it.
There is definitely stuff to like L’odyssée, but if you are after a detailed look at Cousteau’s life, this movie will disappoint. This is a film that has tried to do too much, and managed to not do a lot particularly well in the process.
Director: Jérôme Salle
Cast: Lambert Wilson (Jacques-Yves Cousteau), Pierre Niney (Philippe Cousteau), Audrey Tautou (Simone Cousteau), Laurent Lucas (Philippe Tailliez), Benjamin Lavernhe (Jean-Michel Cousteau), Vincent Heneine (Albert ‘Bébert’ Falco)
Running Time: 122 Mins