Capturing the Cousteau allure

Jérôme Salle on Lambert Wilson's performance in The Odyssey.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jérôme Salle on Lambert Wilson as Jacques-Yves Cousteau:
Jérôme Salle on Lambert Wilson as Jacques-Yves Cousteau: "It helps when you ask a very nice person to be a very tough person."

Once again, inside the Furman Gallery at Lincoln Center during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema exhibition of Paul Ronald's color photographs from Federico Fellini's 81/2, where I met Christophe Honoré for a conversation on Les Malheurs De Sophie, The Odyssey (L'Odyssée) director Jérôme Salle spoke with me on the performances of Lambert Wilson and Audrey Tautou. Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, composer Alexandre Desplat, Calypso captain Albert Falco (Vincent Heneine), nicknamed Bébert (which recalls for me the cat featured in Emmanuel Bourdieu's Louis-Ferdinand Céline), were also washed ashore.

Jérôme Salle at Paul Ronald's 81/2 circus photos:
Jérôme Salle at Paul Ronald's 81/2 circus photos: "Audrey is wonderful." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Odyssey (shot by Matias Boucard, screenplay, co-written with Laurent Turner) is "loosely based" on the books by Jean-Michel Cousteau (My Father, The Captain: Life With Jacques Cousteau) and Albert Falco (Capitaine De La Calypso).

Jérôme Salle's seductive film belongs to Lambert Wilson and the deep blue sea. His performance as Jacques-Yves Cousteau captures something of the core of what made the underwater pioneer's documentaries so compelling. He was selling a lifestyle of a beautiful family as they went on their adventures that created a precursor of what is now called reality TV.

Wilson's Cousteau is such a benevolent, charming creature that we forgive him a lot, to the point of denial that this man is very calculating and ultimately elusive to everyone, especially his family. This Captain Nemo is marketing the unattainable fantasy.

On a trip to Antarctica aboard the Calypso, they do not spot a single whale until the truth dawns on them. A grave of whalebones exposes a massacre. The change of heart from conquering the world's oceans to protecting them comes in a surprising scene in The Odyssey where Philippe, Jacques and Simone Cousteau's youngest son witnesses how garbage - plastic containers, big floating bodies of trash - are tossed carelessly overboard by the crew of the Calypso.

Simone Cousteau (Audrey Tautou) with Jacques:
Simone Cousteau (Audrey Tautou) with Jacques: "She didn't allow any other women on board of the Calypso except her."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Let's talk about the casting. You needed someone who could capture the Cousteau allure. Lambert Wilson encompasses it perfectly.

Jérôme Salle: You know, he has something - it's not aristocratic exactly. You have to keep in mind, first of all, he was born in 1910 [Cousteau]. He was a navy officer. So the way he stands, Cousteau was very straight.

AKT: Regal?

JS: Regal, exactly. Lambert has this. But much more important is this. I knew the way I was describing Cousteau was a little bit tough. I didn't want to hide how tough Cousteau was sometimes. Having Lambert playing Cousteau was great help for me because Lambert is a very, very generous and gentle man. It helps when you ask a very nice person to be a very tough person.

AKT: That's a good point.

JS: Because you keep something sweet. Even when what he is doing is tough, you know, the phone call when his father is dying - because this is Lambert, I don't think you hate him because of that.

"Having Lambert playing Cousteau was great help for me …"

AKT: Even with the adultery that is going on, we might think, oh, he is not doing that really.

JS: And that is thanks to Lambert. He is very charming and as a man he is so generous and gentle, you can feel like that.

AKT: The beauty of the images, the perfection of that family is so appealing and then the cracks show. It's brittle from the start. When we hear Simone [Tautou] talking at the party, saying "my mother could have drowned me as a baby because I was a twin."

JS: At the party, yes. You know that something is broken inside. She is a woman who couldn't be happy, I think. That's why I wanted to have these few lines in the movie just to understand who was this character. This is fully true. It's exactly her story. That's why she had such difficult relationships with women, I think.

She didn't allow any other women on board of the Calypso except her. I don't talk about that in the movie, but she had a very difficult relationship with Jan, Philippe's widow. That explained everything. She couldn't be happy because of that. When you have a mother who doesn't love you, you can't be happy in your life.

Vincent Heneine as Calypso captain Albert
Vincent Heneine as Calypso captain Albert "Bébert" Falco

AKT: Wow. That's a strong statement. I liked his [Wilson as Cousteau] reaction in your film when he is stopping her from saying more. He is protecting her.

JS: He grabs her and says "let's dance".

AKT: It's a very delicate scene because on the one hand, he sees how much she is giving away about herself. He wants to protect her, at the same time he is embarrassed. I thought the scene was beautifully acted.

JS: I love this scene. And Audrey is wonderful.

AKT: You brought up the father's funeral.

JS: Which is a fully true story and describes exactly who Cousteau was.

AKT: When they are watching TV at one point, is that Stagecoach?

JS: No, we're not rich enough to have Stagecoach. It's kind of. I would have loved to, but I'm not rich enough.

Jacques Cousteau on the deep blue sea
Jacques Cousteau on the deep blue sea

AKT: I just noticed that in Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, a very similar scene is used to make a point. Your film is based on two books, one by the oldest son Jean-Michel, one by Bébert [Calypso captain Albert Falco]?

JS: It's loosely based, to be honest. I started to work with those two books but the structure and everything is not really based on that.

AKT: Is Bébert still alive?

JS: No, but I met him. I've been working on the movie for years. I met him a few times. He died three or four years ago [in 2012]. He was great, he was over 80 when I met him. He was still diving. Many of the crew are still alive. They are very old people but in very good shape and still diving, most of them. They are deaf, because of diving, but great old people.

AKT: I had recently seen the film by Emmanuel Bourdieu on Céline and there is of course his famous cat Bébert.

JS: You're right, I never thought about that. No connection.

Anne-Katrin Titze having a Jacques Cousteau moment on the Kon-Tiki
Anne-Katrin Titze having a Jacques Cousteau moment on the Kon-Tiki Photo: Ed Bahlman

AKT: Of course, no connection. The ultimate faithful sidekick name, though. With the sibling rivalry you enter much bigger territory. You have that in every fairy tale - the preferred brother and the other brother. But let me get to my last question. What do you think of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou?

JS: To be honest, I haven't seen the movie since its release, which was I think, nearly ten years ago. But I loved the movie. When I saw the movie I really loved it. I remember, of course, Bill Murray was great, but Cate Blanchett was amazing in the movie.

AKT: And very pregnant.

JS: Very pregnant. I really loved the movie. It was fun. It's a typical Wes Anderson movie. And we share the same composer. Now he worked with Alexandre Desplat for the last few movies. He's got the award for the last one. We have friends and a composer in common.

AKT: At one point, if you meet, you should take a photograph of the two of you…

JS: With a red beanie!

Read what Jérôme Salle had to say on plunging into the depths of The Odyssey.

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