Jacques Cousteau, the French ocean explorer who enchanted generations in France and Britain 60 years ago, will find a younger audience this week with the release of a new film of his life.
L’Odyssée, a €20m spectacular that took five months to film, including shooting in the frozen wastes of Antarctica and with sharks in the Bahamas, opened in French cinemas on yesterday.
As well as recreating some of Cousteau’s finest adventures, the film also explores the man behind the icon, who led a secret double life with a mistress and second family, and the irascible nature that led him to fall out with his children.
Behind the wheel of his famous ship, the Calypso, in trademark red knitted hat, or chasing fish and whales underwater in the revolutionary breathing apparatus he pioneered, Commandant Cousteau became a household name in France and Britain.
At a time when colour television was a novelty, his series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau opened the eyes of a generation to the wonders beneath the waves.
For L’Odyssée, French actor Lambert Wilson, 58, lost 10kg to play the skinny explorer between the ages of 37 and 70 in the two-hour biopic that centres on Cousteau’s often turbulent relationship with his second son Philippe – who 1960s TV viewers would see strumming his guitar on the Calypso – who died in a plane crash in 1979. Audrey Tautou of Amélie Poulain fame plays Cousteau’s first wife, Simone.
François Sarano, who spent 13 years on the Calypso as Cousteau’s scientific adviser, and who worked on the film, said he cried watching L’Odyssée, to be released in the UK next spring. He added that Cousteau was a “rich and complex” personality.
“He is the biggest witness to the history of humanity. He discovered a new world. He filmed the sea depths and made us reflect on our responsibility. He was able to see the change that man had inflicted on his environment,” Sarano told Le Dauphiné Libéré.
Director Jérôme Salle said the film was shot outside a studio. “It was a bit of a gamble because no one had filmed there before … you say to yourself, if nobody has filmed in the Antarctic before there’s a reason for that. It’s like filming on the moon,” he told FranceTV.
For years after his death in 1997, aged 87, Cousteau, whose real name was Jacques-Yves, was repeatedly voted one of France’s favourite celebrities.