Now, voyager

Plunging into the depths of The Odyssey with Jérôme Salle.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jérôme Salle:
Jérôme Salle: "I'm the kind of director who loves to tell stories with pictures more than words." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In 2015, at an Oceana event hosted by Cobie Smulders, I spoke with Jacques-Yves Cousteau's granddaughter and Expedition Blue Planet filmmaker, Alexandra Cousteau. In my conversation with The Odyssey (L'Odyssée) director, Jérôme Salle, we explore the world around Alexandra's grandfather portrayed by Lambert Wilson in his film with Audrey Tautou as Jacques' wife Simone, Pierre Niney (Adrian in François Ozon's Frantz) and Benjamin Lavernhe as their sons.

Simone (Audrey Tautou) and Jacques Cousteau (Lambert Wilson)
Simone (Audrey Tautou) and Jacques Cousteau (Lambert Wilson)

With a screenplay, co-written with Laurent Turner, loosely based on the books by Jean-Michel Cousteau (My Father, the Captain: Life with Jacques Cousteau) and Albert Falco (Capitaine de La Calypso) and a score by longtime Wes Anderson composer Alexandre Desplat, Salle takes us on a personal family journey at sea.

We go from "Cousteau yellow", which explains The Beatles' Yellow Submarine for me, to the red in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. We start by clearing the culpability for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, based on Salle's Anthony Zimmer script and film.

The Odyssey is the closing night selection of uniFrance and Film Society of Lincoln Center's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You said [during the introduction on stage a few minutes prior to this conversation] "Don't blame me for The Tourist".

Oceana event with Alexandra Cousteau and Cobie Smulders
Oceana event with Alexandra Cousteau and Cobie Smulders Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Jérôme Salle: Don't say that!

AKT: Do people sometimes blame you?

JS: Yeah, sometimes people think that I'm involved in this movie and in fact I'm not involved. I only wrote the original script [Anthony Zimmer]. I mean, I never say bad words about The Tourist usually. But I can't resist a joke. That's my problem. But I deeply respect Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the director. His first movie [The Lives Of Others] is a masterpiece. I mean, the movie [The Tourist] is what it is. You know, this is a proof that you can have very talented people and it's not so easy to make a good movie.

AKT: Hollywood can swallow you up?

JS: It's difficult to make a movie. I think it's fascinating. There is a kind of mystery. You never know.

AKT: If it's going to work or not?

JS: Exactly. It's like when you cook. There is something magic.

Philippe (Pierre Niney) with his father Jacques
Philippe (Pierre Niney) with his father Jacques

AKT: I spoke with Alexandra Cousteau about a year and a half ago at an Oceana event. I was surprised to see her in your film as a little girl [played by Talie Mergui]. Did the family see your film?

JS: Most of the family, yes, nearly everybody. Jean-Michel, who is Jacques Cousteau's son, is still alive. Jan Cousteau, who is in the movie [Chloe Hirschman], Alexandra, Philippe Cousteau Jr. Jacques Cousteau's second wife also, Francine.

AKT: They are okay with the portrayal? I can imagine it's difficult.

JS: It's difficult. I mean, you don't have one Cousteau family. It's a very complicated family and the one who is guilty for that is Jacques Cousteau because he didn't take care of his family, I think. So you have different families who don't really talk to each other. They don't really share the same point of view. Everybody can't be pleased anyway. It has been okay. It has been great with Jan and Alexandra. I think it was more difficult for Francine Cousteau, maybe because it only talks about Jacques' love story with Simone.

"Working on the script, I met many former Cousteau crew members."

AKT: The wife before her. Understandably so, no? This is Madwoman in the Attic or Hitchcock territory almost. It's the past in the shape of Audrey Tautou [as Simone], haunting from the screen.

JS: Exactly.

AKT: One scene was brilliantly used to change the focus. When the garbage is thrown in the ocean from the Calypso. Suddenly Philippe is confronted with his cigarette stub. You do not bring up any environmental issues before that scene. Although people today are aware - I talked to Cousteau's granddaughter about the pollution of the oceans - the audience is so wrapped up in the family romance and the beauty of exploring that the scene comes as a shock. That's beautifully done.

JS: I'm the kind of director who loves to tell stories with pictures more than words. Working on the script, I met many former Cousteau crew members. Many told me that before the Sixties, they really didn't care about what they were doing about the environment. They were throwing garbage in the ocean like that, plastic, everything. It's shocking to see.

Pierre Niney as Jacques Cousteau's favorite son Philippe
Pierre Niney as Jacques Cousteau's favorite son Philippe

AKT: It is.

JS: And it was not 40 years ago, not at all.

AKT: You have a line in the film that they were busy "conquering" when it would have been better to "protect".

JS: That's it. You know, Jacques was born in 1910. When he was a kid he was fascinated by Jules Verne. He was really a man coming from the 19th century. So this generation of men and women had the feeling that technology could only be positive. He was living in the southwest of France, in a very small town. There was no electricity until he was five or six, I think. That's the way he was looking at the world. That's why it took time for him to change his mind.

AKT: And he did. You have to give him credit for that.

JS: Yes. I think he's a man who learned from his mistakes. He was always driven by curiosity and he was very open-minded. It's one of the greatest qualities you can have in a man, I think.

"It's difficult. I mean, you don't have one Cousteau family."

AKT: What I noticed very prominently - you talked about visuals - is the color yellow. From the swimming trunks to underwater equipment, it's beautiful with the blue sea. Were you trying to get the exact shade of yellow, the one that triggers the nostalgia?

JS: Yes, we made some tests to have the right yellow, of course, because it's the Jacques Cousteau yellow. Because he was a great art director.

AKT: Yeah, including the red beanies.

JS: Exactly. And even, black wetsuits under water - it doesn't look so good. But you have a black wetsuit with this yellow stripe - suddenly something is happening. The reason for the yellow is that when you go underwater, you lose the red before the yellow. So you can go quite deep and you keep the yellow color. Same for the [yellow] submarine. Also that was part of my souvenir as a kid - white ship, red beanie, very primary colors like that - and to respect what Cousteau has created.

L'Odyssée poster
L'Odyssée poster

AKT: I have memories of Jacques Cousteau's programs. I think many people grew up with these images. He created a kind of perfect world - all my problems do not exist when I am transported there, swimming with the fishes. Although, as he says in the TV executives board meeting: "It is not films about fish!"

JS: He created a full world, in fact. That was every week, I think, when I was a kid, you were forgetting everything during one hour. And you had the feeling that it was true. The difference with a fiction movie was that that was a reality. Of course it wasn't a reality, as I say in the movie. It was a fiction also. In a way, Cousteau created TV reality. What we have now, kind of mixed, we don't know what is true and what is not true. He has created that.

Coming up - The Odyssey director Jérôme Salle on Jacques Cousteau's Calypso captain Albert "Bébert" Falco, Lambert Wilson's performance, composer Alexandre Desplat, and Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema remaining public screening: Sunday, March 12, 8:00pm.

The uniFrance and Film Society of Lincoln Center's 22nd edition of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York runs through March 12. Screenings will take place at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.

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