For a film about a figure as iconic as Jacques Yves Cousteau, Jérôme Salle’s L’Odyssée struggles to get to grips with the man who for television viewers of the late 60s onwards was the last word in underwater documentary making. While the Americans were exploring space, Cousteau took viewers into the equally unknown and distinctly closer world beneath the oceans. Salle’s biopic follows Cousteau from his first success filming underwater to his acclaim as an eco warrier who travelled the world with his son Philippe raising awareness of Man’s negative impact on the environment. There’s a lot of ground to cover and Salle skips too quickly over details which bear a closer look. Is it common knowledge, for example, Cousteau’s first expeditions were funded by oil companies who wanted him to find underwater oil fields? And was he a passionate explorer or simply an astute businessman? He was one of the first creators of a form of reality tv who realised that television was the natural home for his documentaries and viewers were just as interested in what was happening on board The Calypso with its crew of colourful characters as they were in discovering marine life. None of these questions are satisfactorally answered and Lambert Wilson’s understated performance as Cousteau fails to reveal the showman behind the explorer’s familiar weathered, rugged face and trademark red woollen hat.
Cousteau’s life is mostly seen in flashback as the former pilot moves into documentary filmmaking, first in the cinema and then on the small screen. Along the way there is his stormy relationship with his younger son Philippe (Pierre Niney), his numerous extra-marital affairs which test the loyalty of his faithful wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) and his cold, dismissive rapport with his eldest son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe). There is Cousteau the adventurer, Cousteau the inventor, the selfish, self-obsessed father and husband, the failed businessman and the charming, tv interviewee seducing viewers with his heavily accented English. So many sides to explore and none in any depth.
Wilson, one of France’s most prolific and well-respected actors, does a good job in a role for which he is not physically suited. The ever watcheable Niney is excellant as Philippe given the limited amount of screen time he has to develop the character. But Tautou is woefully under used as Simone and is reduced to the walking cliché of the scorned wife – bitter and angry with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. To compensate for the lack of a true dramatic arc, Alexandre Desplat’s earsplitting score rises and falls – much like the storm battered Calypso – at moments of heightened tension providing an unwelcome distraction. Despite the title’s reference to Homer’s famous poem, L’Odyssée is neither epic nor enlightening.