The Odyssey is a radiant and celebratory combination of scientific discovery, cinema history and family saga. It’s as beautiful above sea level as below, boasting lusciously detailed production design. The aesthetic of plenty is one way in which The Odyssey rose-tints its subject and the time in which Cousteau worked. This romanticism is particularly apparent in the opening act, which is pervaded by a sense of optimism as sunny as the Mediterranean setting. Yet as Cousteau’s young sons frolic in this rural idyll, Salle reveals the seeds of decades-long hostilities being sown.
Divers can’t talk underwater, so their communication is highly physical. Wisely, Salle imparts this dynamic to his actors on dry land too, resulting in a family drama whose real depths are unspoken; wrongs that fester for years and grievances which are never forgiven.
It’s from these suppressed darker elements that The Odyssey’s dramatic power derives. Cousteau’s youngest son Philippe (and, it’s implied, his favourite) shares his father’s interests, yet as the vessel for the film’s mounting undercurrent of environmental awareness he outdoes Cousteau in the competition for viewers’ empathy. For 21st century audiences, especially in the wake of Chasing Coral and Al Gore’s Inconvenient films, The Odyssey’s environmental messages seem weak and half-hearted, a not entirely logical moral tacked on to the conclusion. This is partly a product of the film’s chronological structure, which tracks historical growth in awareness of humanity’s impact on the environment. Still, the filmmakers’ final-act activism, though well-meaning, lacks conviction and sits uneasily alongside melodramatic excesses like Alexandre Desplat’s over-weaning score.
Lush and wonderfully cinematic, The Odyssey turns Cousteau’s scientific and filmic endeavours into a rich drama rather than the dull biopic it could have been. It feels thoroughly French, with all the sensuous acting and emotional-excess stereotypes you would expect.
CAST: Lambert Wilson, Pierre Niney, Audrey Tautou, Laurent Lucas
DIRECTOR: Jérôme Salle
WRITERS: Jérôme Salle and Laurent Turner (screenplay), Jean-Michel Cousteau and Albert Falco (book)
SYNOPSIS: Thirty years in the life of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, an influential and fearlessly ambitious pioneer, innovator, filmmaker, researcher and conservationist of all things aquatic.