You win, Movie Klub. I’m stumped. What kind of movie is Jacques Cousteu’s The Silent World? It seems like a documentary, but some scenes appear oddly scripted and contain bizarre “acting.” I was going to call it a nature film, but half the time nature is on film here, bad things are being done to it. You can’t call it a comedy but some sections had me laughing harder than I did during Anchorman.
The facts are these: over the course of two years Cousteau and the crew of his boat Calypso shot footage in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. The underwater sequences were some of the first to have been shot in color, with a special camera created for the project. Cousteau and Louis Malle assembled the footage, and the resulting movie gave Malle his only Academy Award (he would later be nominated four more times) when it won the Best Documentary Oscar.
Once you see the movie – preferably in English for maximum humor effect – the rest of the story becomes clear. For one thing, “documentary” seems a loose term whenever the camera is above water. The scene where Cousteau explains the pressure disease called “the bends” had to be scripted, for instance, because trying to simulate the bends for real could obviously lead to crew deaths. But, even the scenes where the crew is using the radar to find a sunken ship or lounging around the deck in extreme heat seem simulated, and not so well simulated, either. It’s pretty clear that there are no professional actors on the Calypso.
Where the film earned its Oscar is underwater, obviously, with some incredible sequences. Cousteau narrates a few of them, but the movie is really at its best when he stays silent. This is a movie, not unlike Kubrick’s 2001, where you’ll go 10 minutes or more without hearing a single spoken word and yet be completely okay with that. Cousteau really captures how the undersea floor is as much an alien world to most people as the surface of Venus. This movie is a real treat for people who want to see fish and fauna that they’ve never seen in motion before.
And then you get to see Cousteau and company slaughter them.
You see, at the start of his career Cousteau apparently had the same sort of concern for nature that the characters of Mad Men had for their hearts, lungs, livers, and trophy wives. During the very first underwater sequence, the divers pull out hammers to whack away at the coral in their attempt to procure samples, and it just gets worse from there. In an irony worthy of Dr. Strangelove, Cousteau uses dynamite to conduct a census of one deep-water area; apparently, the best way to know the number of living fish in an area is to kill them all.
In these scenes Cousteau develops a hilarious lack of self-awareness that might make even Tommy Wiseau blush. When the crew of the Calypso slaughters a pack of sharks engaged in a feeding frenzy around a young whale, they try to claim that it’s because they’re “avenging” the whale … as though the audience did not just see the Calypso ram the whale and lacerate it with its own propeller a few minutes before! Plus, even if his excuse were true, vengeance and spite aren’t exactly what you want to see from a marine scientist at work.
Once you notice the pattern it’s hard to ignore it, right down to the scene where Cousteau’s underwater scooters flay some undersea plants unbeknownst to the scooter’s operator. This is a movie made by people who love the sea, but they wish in equal parts to understand what they love, and exert their superiority over it. Cousteau learned to study the sea, and develop brand-new ways to move around in it and document it, but in doing so he seems to have forgotten that men don’t belong there (except when someone must recover from the bends, of course). He would eventually learn that one can study something and wreck it at the same time, but it didn’t happen during this movie.
The Silent World is interesting in that way; it’s like sending a foolish email or making an ill-advised blog post. You can apologize or make up for it or anything else, but once done it can’t be undone; there’s almost always a data trail or a screenshot that embarrasses you. The beautiful shots of the sunken ship that the Calypso discovers can’t make you un-see the dynamite scene, and the fact that Cousteau later became a leading environmentalist can’t make him un-film the slaughter of the sharks. This movie really put me through a full range of emotions, from amazement at what Cousteau was able to catch on camera to laughing out loud at his terrible narration, but it was the most negative feelings that really stuck with me.
Reviewed by Mark Young