Becoming Cousteau, 2021.
Directed by Liz Garbus.
A look at the life, passions, achievements, and tragedies surrounding the famous explorer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, featuring an archive of his newly restored footage.
Veteran filmmaker Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) knows the merits of a documentary that skirts glossy presentational tricks and simply gets to the point, as benefits her compelling, informative primer on French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
Whether you’re a Cousteau die-hard or simply know the man’s name, Garbus’ doc should dazzle thanks to the treasure trove of newly restored archive footage on offer, the screen filled at almost all times with wondrous glimpses of underwater life, with not a single talking head in sight.
Context is instead lent through a combination of period interviews with Cousteau himself and those who knew him, and also his own diary entries, as read evocatively by actor Vincent Cassel.
Garbus’ film starts near enough at the beginning of Cousteau’s life and traces a straight path from there, chronicling his unexpected journey to the water following a debilitating car accident. With sustained injuries cutting his naval career short, Cousteau turned to the ocean to rehab his body, where he soon enough caught the aquatic bug.
As Cousteau’s desire to explore the ocean depths in more granular detail grew, he became an inventor, co-creating the revolutionary Aqualung diving apparatus, and later spearheaded the development of ground-breaking underwater camera housing equipment. As much as Cousteau is known in wider culture as the intrepid Captain of the RV Calypso, he became a popular figure off the back of his filmmaking, including the 1956 Palme d’Or and Oscar-winning doc The Silent World, and the widely-watched TV series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
The success of Cousteau’s media projects, revealing to the public a sub-surface world they knew little about, helped nurture humanity’s general fascination with the deep, but with his power to unveil this hidden world came considerable responsibility.
When Cousteau began to explore underwater, he was told that he was opening Pandora’s box, and that in exposing such a fragile ecosystem to the eyes of the world, he had a duty to protect it. Garbus laudably holds nothing back in confessing Cousteau’s flaws in this regard, bracing the man’s romanticised spirit of adventure against the damage, much of it inadvertent, that he ended up causing.
Cousteau later undertook oil research projects in the Persian Gulf in order to fund his travels, his survey of Abu Dhabi waters at the behest of British Petroleum helping usher in the region’s age of oil. It’s easy to sneer at Cousteau’s work with BP, but once the full impact of his actions became clear he attempted to atone, using his televised platform to raise awareness about pollution’s devastating impact on ocean life.
“We are drawing blank checks on future generations,” he argues in one mesmeric interview, in turn throwing away his sunnier earlier pipe dreams about one day establishing an underwater civilisation, keen instead to preserve what’s already there.
Cousteau spent most of the rest of his life campaigning stridently for environmentalist causes all over the world, and while the true breadth of his legacy is a complicated one, it’s clear that he made sufficient efforts to reset the scales, no matter that the bell couldn’t ever be unrung. Predictably, though, TV executives didn’t want to hear Cousteau’s increasingly bleak outlook for the ocean’s future, and ABC eventually dropped his show as a result.
As the doc captures Cousteau in his aquatic element, the wider context of his personal life is also plentifully examined, namely his complicated relationships with his two sons from his first marriage, Jean-Michel and Philippe, the latter of whom died in a plane crash in 1979.
“An explorer has no right to a family,” Cousteau himself says, and because he and his first wife Simone both favoured the ocean, they sent their kids to boarding school in order to facilitate their passions. Seemingly unable to heed his own words, Cousteau also conducted an affair with another woman, Francine – whom he later married after the cancer death of his first wife – and fathered two more children.
Garbus’ matter-of-fact presentation of Cousteau’s personal and professional foibles lend crucial context and humanity to someone who can so easily be held in such a larger-than-life regard that he ceases to be much of a human being. Despite the media and society’s general deference to “printing the legend,” this snappy doc provides a more nuanced, full-bodied account of the man’s euphoric explorative highs and crushing, self-reflective lows.
If Cousteau himself ultimately can’t help but be upstaged by the lush wonders of the deep – presented here through eye-wateringly gorgeous archive footage – given his own love of film and the power of images, he probably wouldn’t mind much.
Breezy, simply presented, and plenty illuminating, Becoming Cousteau shirks the typical talking heads doc format in favour of shrewdly selected archive materials accompanied by compelling voiceover testimony.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.