VOD film review: Becoming Cousteau
Matthew Turner | On 24, Nov 2021
Director: Liz Garbus
Cast: Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Vincent Cassel
Where to watch Becoming Cousteau online in the UK: Disney+ UK
Directed by Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?, Love, Marilyn), this engaging documentary examines the life and work of famed explorer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau. Considering the film was explicitly endorsed by Cousteau’s estate, it’s surprisingly frank when it comes to his flaws and imperfections, offering up a well-rounded portrait of an eminently fascinating character.
Arbus tells Cousteau’s story using a veritable treasure trove of archive footage, ranging from home movies and news reports to chat show appearances, alongside a range of audio files and material from his multiple films and TV shows. These are frequently accompanied by excerpts from Cousteau’s own diaries, read by actor Vincent Cassel (it’s a shame there’s already been a Cousteau biopic, because Cassel would have been perfect).
Cousteau’s story is extraordinary even before you get to the things that made him famous. After a car accident resulted in a severe injury, he underwent ocean therapy as a form of rehabilitation, which lead to his lifelong love affair with the sea. Obsessed with diving and the desire to go ever deeper, Cousteau essentially co-invented the Aqualung, thereby enabling deep-sea exploration without being tethered to the surface, something man had dreamt of for centuries.
Cousteau’s inventions didn’t stop there (“I became an inventor by necessity,” he says) – he also created waterproof housing for a movie camera, enabling him to film underwater. Together with a crew of rough-and-ready drop-outs, Cousteau then began a series of underwater research explorations aboard his beloved ship, the Calypso, a converted minesweeper vessel. His first foray into professional filmmaking, The Silent World, ended up winning both the 1956 Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Documentary.
The success of The Silent World eventually lead to the The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a phenomenally successful TV series that ran for many years and popularised the image of Cousteau and his frequently shirtless crew in their red beanie hats. In his later years, Cousteau became a passionate environmentalist with a global following, more or less single-handedly securing a deal that put a hold on the planned industrial exploitation of Antarctica.
Throughout the film, Garbus doesn’t shy away from the darker details, such as the tragic death of diver Maurice Fargues, who died during the aqualung testing period (there’s harrowing footage of the incident). There are also some surprises, such as the fact that Abu Dhabi owes its obscene wealth to Cousteau, because he took oil industry exploration jobs in order to keep the Calypso afloat.
The film is similarly frank about Cousteau’s personal life, particularly his acknowledged failings as a father to his two young sons, Jean-Michel and Philippe. That said, the film does exercise some restraint when it comes to a more intimate portrait of his marriage – his first wife, Simone (who shared his love of the sea and was the only woman aboard the Calypso), remains a tantalisingly enigmatic character.
The documentary’s most eye-opening aspect is the way that it shows you Cousteau’s own path towards environmentalism. In the early days – most notably in The Silent World – he and his crew displayed a decidedly irresponsible attitude towards the natural world, blowing up large fish, taking rides on clearly unimpressed giant tortoises and even, in a sequence Cousteau himself couldn’t bear to watch in later life, brutally killing a shark. That sense of regret at his own past actions gives the film extra emotional weight and the result is an engaging and informative biography that also serves as an effective eco-doc.
Becoming Cousteau is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.