Becoming Cousteau (2021)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB

USA, 2021. , , , . Screenplay by , . Produced by , , Liz Garbus, . Music by , . Film Editing by Pax Wassermann.

Celebrated documentarian Liz Garbus brings her exuberant sense of narrative presentation to one of the most celebrated figures of the twentieth century, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who has sadly fallen into obscurity for no good reason (Garbus said she was inspired to make this movie because her daughters had never heard of him).

After serving in the Navy, Cousteau and company began diving in the thirties and eventually raised enough money to fund the purchase of a boat, the Calypso, upon which he would enjoy adventures for the rest of his career. Always interested in filmmaking, he created rigs for filming underwater that came in handy when he hired a student from the French film academy named Louis Malle and they collaborated on documentaries about Cousteau’s work. The films were a success (The Silent World won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar, World Without Sun won another Oscar) and eventually led to the television series that thrilled children of the sixties and seventies and helped spread the message of ecological preservation that Cousteau had been awakened to through his own work.

By the end of the seventies, with a tragic loss in his family colouring his perspective, Cousteau had grown despondent with the possibility of saving the environment and his show was canceled when his eco-focused messages became what the network felt were dark and strident. With the passage of time and a second marriage, his optimism returned and he found himself at the centre of numerous initiatives to save our oceans, the legacy of which remains today more than twenty years after his death.

Garbus always manages to make films that are both deeply emotional and remarkably intelligent, in this case skilfully arranging Cousteau’s life into the streamlined narrative of a good biopic without ever letting it feel simple. At the same time that he was many a child’s hero (including yours truly), Cousteau was also a complicated man in private, always believing that his devotion to his work made him a failure with his wife Simone, who was herself fully committed to her work on the Calypso, and their two sons, one of whom went on to work in a similar field as his father (the lawsuit that pere Cousteau later brought against Jean-Michel is not mentioned in the film).

The footage is stunning, early, primitive filmstock is cleaned up and displayed gorgeously between heartfelt and informative interviews with friends and colleagues of the subject, who will hopefully enjoy a revival in popularity because of this wonderful film.

Toronto International Film Festival: 2021

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