Becoming Cousteau | Review | Toronto International Film Festival 2021


Liz Garbus has a wealth of experience in non-fiction storytelling, from feature-length documentaries to episodic pieces. This year's offering, debuting at TIFF, is Becoming Cousteau, a portrait of the multi-hyphenate explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau known for both his TV specials, award-winning documentary films and perhaps lesser-so, his activism.

For those perhaps unfamiliar with the depths of Cousteau's work, this film has the potential to pique interest. It has a mesmerising opening, swept up in a beautiful dream-like score among the underwater visuals that show just how necessary the ocean was to Cousteau's well-being. Garbus selects distressing images to pair with the serenity of the ocean's bountiful life. These warrant warning, but it is not until later that we unravel just how important these moments come to be in Cousteau's work. 

Garbus does an excellent job of making you thirst after a life on the boat with him and his comrades. The melodic score lingers throughout, gently weaving beneath the picturesque archival footage. Garbus summarises that feeling of freedom and endless possibility. It's idyllic, and only as the film progresses do we see the toll the sun-soaked atmosphere can have on the film's subjects.

The audience must fully commit from the off-set to the narrative style Garbus adopts. Entirely narration and archival footage, there is little to grab hold of if you are unfamiliar with Cousteau and his career, and therefore, it's easy to get lost somewhere among the meandering waves. There is no intense build of tension or a desire to reach a destination. Becoming Cousteau is a formulaic portrait of an icon, likely designed for those curious about his work.

There are some interesting social commentaries nestled in among the scenic visuals. In Cousteau's later years, he reconciled with the devastation his ambition caused. It shows how far the industry and the world has come in just a short period. Works such as his Oscar-winning "The Silent World" would now be condemned, as Cousteau condemns it himself. The work he is perhaps lesser known for becomes the most important, and Garbus gives Cousteau the platform he, perhaps, never quite achieved. He realises the destruction occurring in the ocean, stating his generation are "throwing blank cheques on future generations," with a clear understanding "they will be the ones who pay". 

The film is only 90 minutes, and, subjectively, the most captivating part of the narrative falls an hour in, when the clock is ticking down, similar to the world's ability to do anything about climate change. Cousteau's mission to preserve the oceans is endearing, if not hypocritical in places, where he acknowledges his fault and yet can be seen throwing film and his son's coffin into the ocean. 

Cousteau's remorse and the way it impacted him could be its own film. Watching him descend to cynicism is heartbreaking. He retreats inward when those who adore him won't listen to his desperate cries. By the end, Becoming Cousteau feels like a whole different film from the one it started as, but that is also true of Cousteau. His ocean experiences changed him, and he wishes that same feeling for those impacted by his work. The struggle in all things is trying to get others to care about the thing that keeps you up at night, and perhaps Garbus's film suffers the same fate. 

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