Aboard the Calypso – Sea and Cinema with Jacques Cousteau

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Aboard the Calypso – Sea and Cinema with Jacques Cousteau.

Explorer. Inventor. Author. Conservationist. Filmmaker. Jacques Cousteau was an iconic figure in marine exploration, spending more than sixty years investigating undersea kingdoms and sharing his tales with the world. Over three award-winning feature films spanning twenty years, Cousteau reveals the beauty and dangers beneath the waves of the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the frozen Antarctic, finding seldom seen tropical wonders, describing the pressures of living in an underwater base for weeks at a time, and persevering through the life or death struggle to survive at the South Pole. Both the committed naturalist and the keen showman, Cousteau portrayed his oceanic marvels with the idealism and the spectacle of science fiction and inspired generations to care for alien worlds here at home and no longer hidden from view.

Special Edition Three-Blu Ray Set Features:

  • New high definition digital transfers of The Silent World, World Without Sun, and Voyage to the Edge of the World, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays
  • French and English-language audio tracks
  • Introductions by Wes Anderson, James Cameron, and Werner Herzog
  • Of Silence and Men: The Pioneers of The Silent World, a 50-minute documentary featuring interviews with Jacques Cousteau, co-director Louis Malle, camera designer André Laban, Cousteau scholar Franck Machu, and Malle biographer Pierre Billard
  • Two Men, A Masterpiece, an interview with Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle
  • The Silent World’s Legacy, interviews with Jacques Cousteau, Luc Besson, and Jacques Perrin
  • Early films of Jacques Cousteau: 18 Meters DeepShipwrecksLandscapes of Silence, Seals in the Sahara, Around a Reef, Off Tunisian CoastsOne sortie du “Rubis,” SCUBA DiaryDanger Under the SeaRhythm on the Reef, and The Red Sea
  • Station 307 and The Fountain of the Vaucluse, a pair of short films by Louis Malle made in collaboration with Jacques Cousteau
  • Edmond Séchan’s Academy Award-winning short The Golden Fish, produced by Jacques Cousteau
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Trailers
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker Luc Jacquet and excerpts from Cousteau’s 1953 book The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Silent World.

“This is a motion picture studio 165 feet under the sea.”

Co-directed with acclaimed filmmaker Louis Malle, Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World brought deep sea exploration to the general public for the first time and gave birth to a new kind of documentary, capturing amazing sights never before seen on film. In this Technicolor masterpiece, Captain Cousteau and his crew travel aboard his research ship Calypso to reveal the beauty, the adventure, and the boundless possibility of life hidden within the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean, discovering herds of sperm whales, roving sea turtles, schools of sharks, and long-lost underwater shipwrecks. The Silent World established Jacques Cousteau as the face of marine research, winning him the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and claiming the Palme d’Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, and it remains a stunning vision of the natural world that continues to inspire.

Blu-ray Special Edition Features:

  • New high definition digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray
  • French and English-language audio tracks
  • Introduction by filmmaker Wes Anderson
  • Of Silence and Men: The Pioneers of The Silent World, a 50-minute documentary featuring interviews with Jacques Cousteau, co-director Louis Malle, camera designer André Laban, Cousteau scholar Franck Machu, and Malle biographer Pierre Billard
  • Two Men, A Masterpiece, an interview with Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle
  • The Silent World’s Legacy, interviews with Jacques Cousteau, Luc Besson, and Jacques Perrin
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New and improved English subtitle translation

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents World Without Sun.

“It is at night that you meet the strangest creatures.”

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Jacques Cousteau’s World Without Sun chronicles s a brave experiment in marine exploration as Captain Cousteau and his team of divers, scientists, and submariners spend a month living and working at Conshelf Two, a research station rooted to the floor of the Red Sea. This pioneering enterprise by Cousteau and his crew of Oceanauts, exploring unseen depths in metallic silver wetsuits and from within Cousteau’s iconic yellow diving saucer, documents a brave new world with groundbreaking technology and science fiction wonder. The result is a fascinating and awe-inspiring portrait of the exploratory spirit of the Space Age set in an extraterrestrial world hidden just beneath the waves.

Blu-ray Special Edition Features:

  • New high definition digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray
  • French and English-language audio tracks
  • Introduction by filmmaker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron
  • Early films of Jacques Cousteau: 18 Meters DeepShipwrecksLandscapes of SilenceSeals in the SaharaAround a Reef, Off the Tunisian CoastsOne sortie du “Rubis,” SCUBA DiaryDanger Under the SeaRhythm on the Reef, and The Red Sea
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New and improved English subtitle translation

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Voyage to the Edge of the World.

“We are witnesses to the vanishing of eternity.”

Jacques Cousteau faces his most difficult expedition as he ventures into the treacherous waters of the Antarctic. Confronted by freezing seas, collapsing glaciers, volcanic eruptions, and howling winds that threaten their beloved ship, Calypso‘s intrepid team overcomes terrible tragedy to discover untouched wonders of land and sea alike, bringing them in contact with familiar fauna like penguins and seals and bizarre, unexpected creatures secreted in the frozen depths. At the edge of the world, Captain Cousteau and his crew dive beneath thick sea ice and venture into crystalline lakes hidden deep within imposing icebergs, exposing an icy world that is transcendent in its beauty and imposing in its magnitude.

Blu-ray Special Edition Features:

  • New high definition digital transfer with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray
  • French and English-language audio tracks
  • Introduction by filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog
  • Station 307 and The Fountain of the Vaucluse, a pair of short films by Louis Malle made in collaboration with Jacques Cousteau
  • Edmond Séchan’s Academy Award-winning short The Golden Fish, produced by Jacques Cousteau
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New and improved English subtitle translation

*          *          *

Few individuals are as singularly representative of their chosen field as oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Originally committed to a career in naval aviation until a car accident broke both his arms and foreclosed his plans to be a pilot, Cousteau became devoted to revealing the undersea worlds hidden from public view, developing the aqua-lung for extended underwater exploration and advancing the design to allow for modern open-circuit SCUBA technology. He would continue to develop diving technologies throughout his career, but it was his ubiquitous presence behind and in front of the camera that turned JYC into an icon. For nearly fifty years, Captain Cousteau was mankind’s aquatic ambassador and the keen showman captivated us landlubbers with his highly popular television series, particularly The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and a trio of films that traced his transition from explorer and tour guide to conservationist and statesman. Cousteau’s films explicitly tap into the idealism and admiration for exploration that fostered the Space Race during the 1950s and ’60s, leveraging a desire for achievement and discovery among the stars to inspire generations to love and protect an alien world just beyond their shores.

Co-directed with a young Louis Malle fresh from film school and working aboard Cousteau’s ship Calypso as a cameraman, The Silent World (1956) took its name from JYC’s 1953 book The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure and follows the exploits of him and his crew in the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Despite winning the Oscar for Documentary Feature and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Le monde du silence is a challenging film for those expecting a feature doc by one of the twentieth century’s great environmentalists. Cousteau’s crew often look like SCUBros as they harass sea turtles, hot rod behind underwater scooters, annoy seabirds, ride tortoises, and dynamite lagoons, all under the pretext of good-natured research. Still, there is an innocence to The Silent World that is strangely charming and nostalgic, a colourful travelogue of sea and sand that is perhaps oddly demonstrated by the clumsy and careless behaviour of Calypso‘s divers. Call it the nostalgia of simpler, albeit less admirable times. Cousteau’s footage, though, remains eye-catching and awe-inspiring even in the age of 4K-recorded BBC nature documentaries. That sense of discovery that no doubt accompanied The Silent World when it was first released remains today and Cousteau seems to anticipate his more explicit science fiction allusions made in his later two films through an extended investigation of a sunken wreck to the vaguely sci-fi-like composition of Yves Baudrier.

The Silent World opens with the Promethean image of Cousteau’s divers descending into the deep with burning flares in their hands. This mythic set-up contrasts with the super-science futurism of “Denise” (Cousteau’s yellow diving saucer) silently gliding through the titles of World Without Sun (Jacques Cousteau, 1964). Space Age utopianism is on full display in Le monde sans soleil as the film recounts the endeavours of a half-dozen “oceanauts” garbed in metallic silver wetsuits and living beneath the waves in Continental Shelf Station Two (Conshelf Two), a self-contained habitat fixed to the floor of the Red Sea. Much of the film’s first half addresses the intricacies of living in this artificial environment – the details of maintaining its atmosphere, the duration of a lit cigarette, the speed of hair growth – then transitions to the responsible scientific work at hand – carefully gathering live samples as if to expel the problematic imagery of the previous film. The latter half of World Without Sun tends to focus more specifically on the exploration of the “vertical desert” situated alongside Conshelf Two, and Cousteau’s footage, shot by DP Pierre Goupil, astounds, having a more serene and observational quality than its predecessor. The score by Serge Baudo, Henri Crolla, and André Hodeir explicitly evokes a sci-fi context and World Without Sun ultimately resembles something of an EPCOT attraction made real, a concept and experiment that later had direct application to the space travel Cousteau works hard to emulate. Criticisms were made that portions of World Without Sun were faked by Cousteau, although JYC frequently defended the veracity of the documentary. Regardless, Le monde sans soleil deftly balances its quirky, homosocial domesticity with its eerie, inhospitable environs, making it a classic in documentary science fiction.

Twelve years and thirty-seven episodes of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau later, the Captain returned to theatres with Voyage to the Edge of the World (Jacques Cousteau, Philippe Cousteau, and Marshall Flaum, 1975), a travelogue nature documentary detailing a four month visit to Antarctica. In Voyage au bout du monde, JYC and his son Philippe explore a forbidding landscape of snow, ice, and freezing waters with Calypso‘s crew, observing penguins, seals, and humpback whales in their natural habitat. It is a dangerous endeavour – icy waters threaten to crush Calypso, volcanos steam and smoulder, storms burden their ship in ice and damage its propulsion system – and tragedy strikes when Calypso‘s Chief Mate is struck by their helicopter’s tail propellor and is killed. Yet the expedition’s challenges are compensated with extraordinary discoveries and wondrous sights – abandoned whaling camps turned ossuaries, expanses of waving red algae, rare icefish, and shimmering, crystalline lakes hidden within massive icebergs. Voyage to the Edge of the World transforms Cousteau’s guidebook admiration into something spiritual and philosophical, something stirred by the immensity and otherworldliness of an environment standing just across the border of our familiar world.

Cousteau’s work has had spotty releases over the years and his trio of feature films have been particularly challenged in their circulation. Bare-bones Blu-rays of these films were briefly released by A&E and Go Entertainment in North America before going quickly out of print. The Silent WorldWorld Without Sun, and Voyage to the Edge of the World are seminal nature documentaries, winners of cinema’s top prizes and made by the form’s most storied figure. Certainly deserving of a wacky “C,” Criterion Collection editions of these films would fill a significant gap in the documentary canon and the label’s emphasis on developing additional features would finally provide these films with the consideration and context they deserve. While there is certainly plenty of beautiful images and impressive production art to draw upon for a packaging treatment of a Cousteau film set, MMC! is particularly fond of Kelvin Dutton’s illustrations of Cousteau’s theatrical works. His illustration for World Without Sun beautifully captures the luminous green of Technicolor waters and proudly displays the artist’s hand in the looseness of his lines and the inconsistencies of his lettering, foregrounding the personal nature of these films to their author JYC.

Credits: Our cover summary are partially based on those of the A&E/Go Entertainment Blu-rays. The interviews, documentaries, and restoration demonstration are ported over from the French Blu-ray of Le monde du silence. We imagined filmmaker introductions based on Wes Anderson’s interest in Cousteau and his film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), James Cameron’s career in deep sea exploration, and Werner Herzog’s Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007). French filmmaker Luc Jacquet was chosen to provide an essay given his work in nature documentaries like March of the Penguins (2005) and Antarctica: Ice & Sky (2015). Notably absent from our proposed package is any discussion from anyone with the last name of Cousteau.  We assume that a release of these films would require the involvement of the Cousteau Society, however a wide and acrimonious gulf separates the Captain’s family through his first wife Simone and that of his second wife Francine, who currently serves a president of the Cousteau Society. As wonderful as it might be to hear from Cousteau’s son Jean-Michel or the grandchildren of Philippe Cousteau, it seems too unlikely given the consent likely required of Francine and the Cousteau Society to release these films.  Even MMC! has limits to its imagination.

This post owes debts to Greg Rubinson’s Salon.com article on The Silent World, A.A. Dowd and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s articles for the A.V. Club, and Jorge Mezcua’s essay at fordivers.com.

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3 thoughts on “Aboard the Calypso – Sea and Cinema with Jacques Cousteau

  1. aaronwest June 12, 2017 / 10:14 am

    The Silent World is a beautiful film even if it has the “Scubros.” It can be cringeworthy at times, but I know that it took place during the infancy of marine exploration and even experts like Cousteau were unaware the impact of their actions. I believe he even disowned the film because he became such a staunch environmentalist. That said, it is remarkably shot film — even compared to the TV work he did later — and worth seeing.

    • spinenumbered June 14, 2017 / 11:22 pm

      All true. I think “disowned” might be strong, but he certainly distanced himself from some of that content and I think you can’t help but think he’s explicitly redressing his trespasses in the first films.

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