This is a biopic about the marine explorer and film maker Jacques Cousteau, starting in the post second world war period, when he is living an idyllic life with his wife Simone and two young sons in a Mediterranean villa bought on the proceeds of his development of the aqua lung.
But Jacques’ restless personality and desire for adventure lead him to risk all that and take his family with him to explore the underwater world.
Cousteau lived a long and very full life, so the film has a lot of ground to cover, sometimes it seems almost too much. The film doesn’t depict him as a saint. Far from it. It is a many textured role and well played by Lambert Wilson, who is now a charismatic, grey haired older man with lines of character on his face that suit the character.
Jacques is dedicated to his work, including his never fulfilled dream of creating cities for people to live under the ocean, but he is also blinkered, self centred and even bullying at times. And he is an inveterate womaniser. Tautou plays his long suffering wife Simone, a somewhat subsidiary role both on screen and in life, which makes little of her usual gamine quality, as she takes her character from a lively young woman to a disillusioned and heavy drinking older woman. She still looks beautiful with grey hair though.
The most empathetic character for contemporary audiences is that of their younger son Philippe (Pierre Niney), who works with his father on their many films. Cousteau is known as a conservationist but he is seen here for much of his life as being more focussed on his own personal glory. It is Philippe, angered initially by his father’s treatment of a family of seals in the course of making a commercial film, who is initially the conservationist and who then turns his father to the cause. Niney gives a very engaging performance in the role.
The underwater photography, of which there is a lot, is superb – with a subject like this it has to be. One particularly memorable sequence features Philippe filming sharks, where he nearly becomes their dinner. Another very moving one takes place on land in the snowy wastes of the Antarctic, where father and son fail to find the whales they are searching for because they have all been slaughtered by whalers.
The film does at times seem as though it is trying to pack too much in and it falters on occasion. But it is a good story, well acted, skillfully filmed and sensationally beautiful to look at.