The Odyssey

Sarah Ward

Jacques-Yves Cousteau's life and work inspires an episodic biopic boosted by stunning underwater cinematography.
The Odyssey

The Odyssey (L’Odyssee) directed by Jérôme Salle. Image via Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.

Below sea level, Jacques-Yves Cousteau found another world. Delving beneath his underwater documentaries, the French naval officer turned oceanographer turned Cannes Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker eventually discovered a conservation cause he was passionate about fighting for. And, underneath his signature red cap, he concealed personal and professional turmoil – a marriage tested through his affairs, a tumultuous relationship with son Philippe, and funding issues among them.

The Odyssey (L’Odyssee) takes audiences on a journey through Cousteau’s life and work – and as the name suggests, it's a sizeable trip through incident-fills waters, in terms of breadth if not necessarily depth. Based on the non-fiction text Capitaine de La Calypso by Albert Falco and Yves Paccalet, and adapted for the screen by writer/director Jérôme Salle (Zulu) and his co-scribe Laurent Turner (Anything for Alice) boosted by extra research for the script, the biopic floats along the surface of Cousteau’s escapades, offering an episodic glimpse rather than a detailed understanding.

Given Cousteau’s many antics and achievements, the film’s approach makes for a busy 122 minutes. It’s the lure of the water that defines Jacques (Lambert Wilson, Rabid Dogs); though surrounded by people, including his dutiful wife Simone (Audrey Tautou, Microbe & Gasoline), elder son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe, The Sense of Wonder) and later his loyal first mate Albert 'Bébert' Falco (Vincent Heneine, French Blood), only the adult Philippe (Pierre Niney, A Perfect Man) comes close to swaying his focus. Salle makes the importance of their bond evident by commencing The Odyssey with Philippe’s crash in 1979, then jumping through the preceding four decades of boat-centric endeavours. Purchasing a ship and getting it in sea-faring shape, seeking out financial support as well as interesting filming ideas, submerging himself in the sea, skirting Simone’s increasing unhappiness and grappling with Philippe’s different ideas all form part of the action.

The Cousteaus’ father-son sparring provide standard-issue emotional complications, which characterises much of the drama: predictable, even for those that aren’t well-versed in the intricacies of Jacques’ existence; engaging-enough, even though it never reaches beyond the expected template. Of the central trio, it’s Niney that makes the biggest mark with the material courtesy of his enigmatic presence – both on the screen, and in communicating Philippe’s influence in his father’s life. Wilson and Tautou inhabit their roles with the requisite balance of charm and conflict, but prove more successful hinting at complexities rather than conveying them. 

In this account of a life lived not only in land but underwater – and chronicled there at length – the story and the stars aren't the only drawcard, of course. Of paramount importance is The Odyssey's ability to capture the wonders of the sea and evoke the feeling that entranced Jacques, which it achieves handsomely and convincingly. Indeed, cinematographer Matias Boucard (Don’t Grow Up) is easily the film’s most valuable player, and his stunning images its most captivating element. Alexandre Desplat’s (The Light Between Oceans) score hits the appropriate notes, but, as the Cousteaus’ knew all too well, there’s nothing as mesmerising as the delights in the ocean’s blue depths.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

The Odyssey (L’Odyssee)
Director: Jérôme Salle
France, 2016, 122 mins

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Sydney: 7 – 30 March 2017
Melbourne: 8 – 30 March 2017
Canberra: 9 March – 4 April 2017
Perth: 15 March – 5 April 2017
Brisbane: 16 March – 9 April 2017
Adelaide: 30 March – 23 April 2017
Hobart: 30 March – 8 April 2017
Parramatta: 6 – 9 April 2017
Casula: 8 – 9 April 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay