A visionary undersea adventure unfolds in Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World (1956)
55 years on from its original release and Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World feels just as futuristic and revolutionary as it did back in 1956, when it was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Co-directed by Louis Malle, two years before he kick-started the nouvelle vague with Elevator To The Gallows (1958), the film frequently feels like an alien voyage, recalling classic science-fiction - indeed, the spiky invertebrate species who inhabit sunken vessels could have come from the pages of Jules Verne. I often wonder why we invest so much time and money in trying to reach the far expanses of outer space when there are still so many life forms left undiscovered in the depths of our oceans. Cousteau seems to agree with me and he pioneered groundbreaking underwater technology in order to make The Silent World possible.
For those unacquainted, Cousteau was a French explorer, ecologist, scientist and researcher. After an automobile accident cut his career as a gunnery officer in the École Navale short he turned his attentions to documentary filmmaking. He also served as the primary influence on Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004; still underrated). But the innovator never left his Navy spirit behind, remaining an intrepid adventurer at heart; like the Indiana Jones of the high seas, on a permanent quest for knowledge and treasures. His prize is a connection with nature, which he explores from the ship Calypso - on the surface a standard vessel, but inside packed with complex technology that allows the crew to read their surroundings and observe the patterns of its life forms. The most interesting sections of the film centre around this technology and the home on the sea Cousteau has created for his crew.
The underwater sequences are visually breathtaking but the film isn't without flaws. Perhaps the main problem is the fact that information can sometimes get lost at the expense of Cousteau's imagination; some scenes feel a little recreated, for example, as if to highlight rather than observe the day-to-day happenings of the crew. I feel like Cousteau should be a subject or spectator rather than director, but the character he has built for himself takes centre stage. On a vessel the size of Calypso the camera can only move so quickly and take in so much - it's sad that some set-pieces feel compromised in this way. The ability to retake can damage the form of documentary and that's sadly true here. But now I must be a hypocrite, for the most thrilling scene in The Silent World is one which we would ordinarily associate with fiction; a shark attack on the carcass of a baby whale. A small team of divers lower themselves into the water using the shark cage to get an angle on the action for a genuinely gripping set-piece which uses editing to its advantage, to create pace and excitement. But I think the reason it feels so special is because a scene of that magnitude could not possibly be faked; it's a work of imagination done for real. I guess it's just a shame that I don't know how much of the film I can trust.
I'll still recommend The Silent World though; it's a visionary and ahead-of-its time experience led by a charismatic filmmaker who, despite my suspicions of authenticity, helped advance the form of documentary. The camerawork is brilliant, the Technicolour striking and the set-pieces exciting. I have big problems with this film but I can't deny its power and the grip it held over me. Regardless of whether or not some scenes are being acted out it's still a hugely important work, and you simply must own it on Blu-Ray.