Documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus has built up a formidable CV in the twenty plus years since her directorial debut, The Farm: Angola, USA, was nominated for an Oscar. Some of Garbus’ strongest work has focused on celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe (Love, Marilyn), Nina Simone (What Happened, Miss Simone?), and the eponymous chess champion of Bobby Fischer Against the World.
Garbus’ outstanding new film—which screened at the 2021 London Film Festival—centres on yet another household name, the French maritime explorer and environmentalist Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Those who remember the globally broadcast TV show The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau will no doubt find the film carries an extra frisson. Becoming Cousteau, which features an excellent voiceover from French actor Vincent Cassel, is an absorbing—ahem—deep dive into the life and work of a true polymath.
It takes a while for Becoming Cousteau’s environmental themes to properly emerge; before getting to that point, the viewer has to weather a storm borne of Cousteau’s erstwhile ignorance regarding the ocean and its sustainability—for the younger version of the explorer was a man who saw little wrong in activities such as dynamiting coral reefs, riding on the backs of turtles, and harpooning whales.
Examples of all of these practices can be seen in Cousteau and Louis Malle’s 1956 Oscar-winning film The Silent World, which Garbus draws from here. Yet The Silent World’s most appalling sequence—also featured in Becoming Cousteau—depicts the brutal bludgeoning of sharks by Cousteau and his crew. At the time of The Silent World’s release, this sickening spectacle was framed as a piece of noble revenge, as the sharks had just dined on a baby sperm whale.
Yet this ostensibly honourable undertaking loses any and all credibility when you consider the following: the whale was one of a pod being tracked by Cousteau’s vessel, the Calypso, and the unfortunate mammal was sucked into the propeller; the crew put the severely wounded creature out of its misery, and the resulting blood attracted sharks who, as punishment for eating a whale that was already dead, were subsequently hauled onto the deck and beaten with sledgehammers, hooks and crowbars.
Inside or outside of its context, this is a grotesque, shameful and sadistic act, one presumably staged as a most cynical attempt to shift the blame from the Calypso’s crew to these innocent fish. It’s as if viewers are expected to get swept up in the emotion of the whale’s death to the extent that they’ll cheer on the battering of these supposed villains of the sea, all the while forgetting that the scenario is entirely devoid of any logic.
That Garbus thinks to include this graphic footage proves that Becoming Cousteau is no hagiography, and if we are to appreciate its subject’s great achievements then we should also consider his ill deeds. But Cousteau did undergo a near-Damascene conversion when he realised the damage he’d caused to the sea and its inhabitants, and for many years he worked tirelessly to ensure that others didn’t show the same disregard for the planet that had characterised the callow explorer’s expeditions.
There was never really a sense that Cousteau was trying to atone for his shabby treatment of the seas, and he appeared to be able to compartmentalise his earlier actions as those of a young man who simply didn’t know any better. Cousteau subsequently used his great fame to raise awareness of climate change; in the group photo for the Rio-92 Earth Summit, Cousteau is the only non-head of state, which says a great deal about his status: governments really couldn’t afford to ignore his views.
Becoming Cousteau also delves into the explorer’s private life, which grew ever more complicated as the years wore on. By his own admission, his devotion to the sea didn’t dovetail especially well with his duties as a husband and father, and the film conveys the sense that a not inconsiderable personal price had to be paid for Cousteau’s immense professional success.
After his son Philippe was killed in a plane crash, Cousteau’s demeanour changed: while he still hoped that the world would address its various environmental challenges, he cut an introspective, slightly resigned figure, one who let a grain of cynicism creep into his hitherto optimistic outlook. This is not to say that he experienced anything like the volte-face that had seen him go from reckless explorer to “Captain Planet”, but Philippe’s death—quite understandably—brought a noticeable shift in Cousteau’s personality.
Garbus also manages to cover some of Cousteau’s other notable activities, such as his role as the co-inventor of the aqualung, and his survey for British Petroleum that discovered the oil on which Abu Dhabi’s wealth has been built. As a man of wide-ranging talents, of which filmmaking was by no means the least, the film devotes a pleasing amount of time to Cousteau’s proficiency as a maker of documentaries, which is perhaps to be expected given that it’s the field in which Garbus has gained such prominence. Following the great success of The Silent World, Jacques Cousteau garnered a second Oscar for 1964’s World Without Sun; should Garbus be similarly rewarded for the enthralling, wire-tight Becoming Cousteau, few would have cause to complain.