The Odyssey is a biopic on the life of Jacques-Yves Cousteau (Lambert Wilson), a world-famous explorer, filmmaker, inventor and later environmental activist. While exploring his relationships with wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) and older son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe), the bulk of the narrative focuses on his eventually strained relationship with his younger son Philippe (Pierre Niney), a fellow explorer who tragically died in a plane accident.
Lambert Wilson shines in the role as a man who starts off well-intentioned and legitimately passionate about his trade, eventually succumbing to his own fame and ego as he gets older and more famous. Wilson manages to etch humanity out of a potentially unlikeable role, respecting Cousteau’s contributions to nature documentary filmmaking while also not going so far as to lionise him while giving him tacit and uncomplicated flaws, like a lot of biopics tend to do with their figures. In terms of the rest of the cast, Pierre Niney handles his role as the prodigal son admirably, whilst the always excellent Audrey Tautou adds a lot of weight and resonance to a support role.
Probably the strongest thing about The Odyssey is the visuals. As someone with a great affinity for the ocean, I love how they make it so warm and inviting. The vastness and unrelenting cruelty of the sea can wash away (ugh, sorry ‘bout the pun) to some grand undiscovered beauty. It’s excellently contrasted later once the pollution element is brought in. The cinematography has a nostalgic warmness that fits perfectly for a lazy Sunday afternoon showing-it doesn’t elevate the look to majestic greatness, but it’s pretty and absorbing enough to keep your attention either passively or actively.
If I have any complaints, it’s that it paradoxically feels a bit too long and too underdeveloped. It covers over 30 years of Cousteau’s life, so a lot can be left at the wayside, and it has a tendency to lose focus and explore his rise to fame rather than tightening it to look at his family. Because of this, you really feel the 2-hour run time if you’re not invested in the lead or his story, and it becomes difficult to stray your attention to what is a pretty compelling character piece about a man who nearly loses what matters chasing glory.
The Odyssey is a beautifully shot, well-acted film that tends to lack the focus and development really needed to make an epic retelling of an important man’s life. While it can certainly charm you with its compelling family dynamics and glorious underwater cinematography, it’s inability to streamline this man’s life and tendency to drop plot points until they are relevant again causes it to be uneven and unfortunately may lose the less patient. Still, if you connect with this story, it’s well worth checking out. A grand old adventure worth exploring.