Screener provided by Rialto Distribution
It feels somewhat reductive to call Jacques Cousteau an explorer. He was a pioneer, an inventor, a filmmaker, an author, and, at the later stages of his life, a conservationist to say the bare minimum. Sporting his unmistakeable red beanie, Cousteau set out on a lifelong journey to understand the depth of the ocean, which he and his team on the Calypso saw as an endeavour on the scale of space travel. People unfamiliar with his story may recognise his iconography through the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), where Cousteau was the main inspiration for Bill Murray’s titular character, albeit with vastly different personalities.
Helmed by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus and a mountain of Cousteau’s own archival footage, this documentary is an honest and, at times, quite moving film about how an individual’s singular passion can be inspiring while also blinding them to the relationships to the people and world they inhabit. The film is neither a pure work of lionisation or exposé like many recent documentaries end up being. Garbus is able to toe that incredibly difficult and constantly shifting line that has made her one of the best in the business in working with subjects of immense cultural weight like Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone.
From the outset, the film strikes you with a certain somber energy, constructed primarily through its voiceover interview delivery as well as the Desplat-esque score from workhorse film composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, furthering the Wes Anderson connection. In a documentary that uses almost entirely archival footage (which is much more effective than a constant barrage of talking heads in hotels), audio is one of two crucial elements Garbus has to involve the audience (the other being the editing), and is where the films grounds itself wonderfully. This gives the film this off-beat energy that never holds your hand into feeling certain emotions while the extraordinary footage of the Calypso’s archival footage crashes over you in waves. This is best illustrated in an early sequence where we are shown actual footage of one of Cousteau’s closest friends, a fellow “musketeer of the sea” Maurice Fargues, which felt somehow both confronting and respectful to the depths they were willing to go to achieve their insatiable goal of exploration.
Becoming Cousteau is sequenced in an interesting and poignant way, tracking the transformation of Cousteau from a young passionate man driven to conquer the unknown depths of the ocean, to a seasoned traveller tasking himself with its protection. Garbus does an excellent job shaping Cousteau’s narrative in a cinematic way, from a visionary explorer ahead of his time that was all too often used for his passions by seperate interests (the revelation that the Calypso can be directly linked to the discovery of oil on the Qatari coast felt especially heartbreaking as the film went on), that had to eventually grapple with those earlier decisions.
In the era of the docuseries, it’s hard not to ponder the idea of Cousteau needing an extended runtime to dive deeper into each step of his journey. The films 90-minute runtime oftentimes felt to be moving at warp speed through many nuggets of narrative, from his Oscar and Palme d’Or winning documentary The Silent World (1956) that did The Abyss (1989) two years after James Cameron was born, to his struggles and achievements as a conservationist in his later years. While there is a certain charm to the quick burst documentary film, Becoming Cousteau definitely falters in its execution as a cradle-to-grave story, an issue with most single subject documentary and biopic features, but works well in creating an honest portrait of an inspirational figure that gave us the gift of his own journey on film.
Becoming Cousteau is coming to select national cinemas October 22nd.