Luck and learning turned diver into environmental hero

Jacques Cousteau wears his trademark red cap aboard the Calypso during the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of the Cousteau Society)

By Richard Ades

Becoming Cousteau, Liz Garbus’s biographical documentary about the late Jacques Cousteau, is aptly named.

Though Cousteau was one of the first luminaries to sound the alarm about mankind’s ongoing destruction of the environment—particularly the watery environment that covers most of our planet—he was not born with this level of enlightenment. He was not even that interested in the ocean, Garbus reveals, as he entered the French naval academy at the age of 20 only for the chance to become an aviator. But then fate sent his life in a new direction.

After being involved in a traffic accident that nearly killed him, we learn, Cousteau was forced to give up his previous plans and turn to the ocean for refuge. With a couple of companions, he began “free diving” (i.e., without auxiliary aids) as a way to recover his muscle strength. Even after Germany invaded France during World War II, his devotion to the sea kept growing, to the extent that he was soon planning to build a career around his new love.  

At first, Cousteau hoped to earn money by conducting salvage operations on sunken ships and downed planes with the aid of diving equipment that he was working to perfect. Then, in 1951, he acquired the converted mine sweeper known as the Calypso and began his new life as an ocean-going explorer.

It was during these early years at sea, Garbus tells us, that Cousteau committed acts he later came to regret after becoming more environmentally sensitive. In order to catalog local fish populations, for example, he and his crew dynamited off-shore waters without regard for the damage it would cause to fragile habitats. Perhaps worst of all, they bankrolled their exploits by helping a British drilling company locate underwater oil deposits in the Persian Gulf.

Fortunately, Cousteau eventually found a safer meal ticket in the form of his long-running TV series The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau. The series helped to pay for Cousteau’s worldwide explorations and, at the same time, gave him a bully pulpit to express his growing concerns about the damage being done to the sea by industrialized society and its waste products.

The documentary depicts all of this with the help of the miles and miles of film Cousteau shot throughout his career. At the same time, it doesn’t neglect his family life—such as it was.

Sons Jean-Michel and Philippe often were sent away to boarding school while Cousteau and his wife, Simone, roamed the seas on the Calypso. Even so, both sons took an interest in their father’s work, particularly the adventure-craving Philippe. As a result, Cousteau assumed he would one day be able to allow the younger generation to take it over, and he was devastated when tragedy disrupted his plans.

Producer-director Garbus has won awards and nominations in both documentary and scripted categories. With this National Geographic Documentary Films production, she succeeds in turning a 20th century icon into a human being who took a long, watery path to becoming an environmental prophet. It’s a compelling journey.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Becoming Cousteau (PG-13) can be seen at select theaters, including Central Ohio’s Marcus Crosswoods Cinema 17 and AMC Dine-In Easton Town Center 30.

Tale unfolds on Bergman’s old stomping grounds

Filmmaking couple Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) take a working vacation in Bergman Island.

By Richard Ades

Bergman Island should appeal to devotees of the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman—at least on the surface.  

Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love, the flick sends filmmaking couple Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) to Faro, the island that often served as the auteur’s home and movie set. There they go to work on their separate writing projects while sleeping in a bed that reportedly was used in Scenes From a Marriage, Bergman’s painful account of a marriage’s disintegration.

The obvious implication is that we’re about to see a similar disintegration take place between Chris and Tony, whose relationship may not be that solid to begin with. Tony, who appears to be decades older, is so engrossed in his work that he sometimes seems distant and even ignores Chris’s romantic overtures. His career also is more established than hers, possibly creating the kind of power imbalance that played a destructive role in Scenes. This becomes obvious when a local screening of one of Tony’s films draws gushing fans while Chris disappears into the background.  

It’s no surprise, then, that when a young man offers to give Chris a private tour of the island, she takes it, in the process skipping a group excursion she was supposed to take with Tony. Is this the beginning of the unraveling of their relationship?

But then director Hansen-Love takes things in a new and unexpected direction. After Chris begins telling Tony about a screenplay she’s struggling to finish, her script comes to life as we’re introduced to Amy (Mia Wasikowska), its lonely protagonist. We watch as Amy arrives at a Swedish island to attend a friend’s wedding and runs into Joe (Anders Danielsen Lie), an old love for whom she still carries a torch.

Will Amy and Joe reconnect despite the fact that each is now involved with someone else? The question is explored at length as the movie-within-a-movie goes on and on, to the extent that it nearly eclipses the original story of Chris and Tony. On the one hand, that’s OK, because Amy and Joe’s story is a pleasant diversion. On the other hand, it’s odd that the film’s core relationship is left so undeveloped.

After hearing about the complications Hansen-Love faced in making the movie, it’s hard not to wonder whether they contributed to this lapse. Owen Wilson was supposed to play Tony but bowed out weeks before filming started, forcing the director to begin shooting without a Tony in 2018. It wasn’t until 2019, after Roth had been cast in the part, that she was able to return to the island and fill in the gaps.

A few late twists do offer some insight into Chris’s relationship with Tony while raising questions about her connections with the supposedly fictitious Amy and Joe. These add intriguing ambiguities to the film, though they don’t quite make up for its failure to delve into interpersonal issues as richly as Bergman did in Scenes From a Marriage and other classics.

That’s a high standard, admittedly, but when you make a film called Bergman Island, it’s hard to avoid the comparison.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Bergman Island (rated R) opens in select theaters Oct. 15 and will be available from VOD outlets beginning Oct. 22.