Becoming Cousteau review – getting in deep with the beanie-wearing ocean explorer

For an “official” documentary – sanctioned by the Cousteau Society and co-produced by his children Diane and Pierre-Yves Cousteau – this account of Jacques Cousteau’s life and mermaid’s purse of achievements is not completely uncritical. Not only does it show how the ocean explorer, seen bludgeoning sharks and dynamiting coral reefs in his 1956 classic The Silent World, graduated to become an indefatigable conservationist before his death in 1997; it also broaches the emotional price paid by the Cousteau family for his constant horizon-chasing, something his little filmed first wife Simone seems to have been even more ruthless about: “No man in the world could offer me what this vessel has.”

You’re probably familiar with the trademarks – the good ship Calypso’s crew of “dropouts”, the red beanies, the wanderlust – as rhapsodised by Cousteau in his films and TV specials, and lifted by Wes Anderson for 2004’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Aún así, the course Cousteau charted through 20th-century exploration, exploitation and, belatedly, environmentalism is still quite stunning: pioneering western freediver, the inventor of the aqualung in Toulon, discoverer of the oil reserves that enriched Abu Dhabi, swashbuckling film-maker who won the Palme d’Or, and by the mid-1980s a de facto elder statesman whom governments could not afford to ignore on the emerging topic of climate change.

Director Liz Garbus largely constructs her film from archive recordings of Cousteau and associates, and journal entries voiced by Vincent Cassel. Possibly, sustained sit-down interviews with his three surviving children (his heir apparent Philippe was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1979) might have yielded even more probing insights into the family dynamics – and the questing personality at its centre everyone had to accommodate.

Becoming Cousteau is no hagiography, but greater distance might have also allowed Garbus to reflect more on the man’s environmental legacy. The film is keen to assert his involvement in the 1991 moratorium on Antarctic exploration. Kudos, for sure – but perhaps it’s possible that such media paragons, among them David Attenborough after him, have also allowed politicians to claim green credentials by association, rather than action.

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