We’ve been working to wean the housemate from torpedoes and death at sea with Jacques Cousteau. I remembered his show as gentle and slightly goofy: barechested men in Speedos and colored caps languidly prizing open the secrets of the deep. What I’d forgotten, or never noticed for the sideburns, is the existential melancholy that drives even the sleepiest episodes. Cousteau’s “psychic landscape of the deep” dwarfs every human pretension. Great ships sink, artworks rot, whole civilizations end in “shattered splendor … a somber reminder that we, too, are vulnerable.” The scores (mostly Elmer Berstein’s) are dreamy and various, and the scripts, just a shade away from deep purple, turn seas into “stormy cradles” and darkness to “Stygian gloom” without batting a thesaurus.
The center of each episode is Cousteau’s own narration, delivered in a sort of slurred, aquatic English, where an old saw from Latin or a line from Paul Valéry is more likely to surface than any information about the deep. Cousteau’s brother was a notorious French Fascist, and while Jacques distanced himself from his sibling early and firmly, there’s a kind of anti-humanist fascination with the monumental that must have been a family trait.*
More than any politics, there’s a peculiarly Gallic version of heroics that weaves through the shows. Precise and womanless, but also collective and jokey, the crew pursue their opaque specialties and sub-specialties with lots of shouts and whistles but few visible signs of labor. Ages and body types range yet the tans are all even, and Cousteau, standing gauntly among them, primus inter pares, appears grateful for their warmth against “the chill that invades our wet suits—and our souls.”
Technophilia thrums in the background, but the machines are just whimsical enough—an undersea saucer, a tube that vacuums dust from the ocean floor—to recall the balloons and gleaming roadsters of Cousteau’s purpose-driven compatriot, Babar.
Measured against the whiz-bang science and swooshing graphics of today’s infotainment, it’s hard to believe these arty sleepers ever found funding. You come away from 55 minutes of “man’s brief adventure” and ponder, like Cousteau confronting one of his ruined finds, if “History has made a mistake.”
*Questions about Cousteau’s own alleged anti-Semitism still dog his early career. Is it coincidence that Hitler’s most celebrated director, Leni Riefenstahl, ended her life making undersea films?
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