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Becoming Cousteau – inessential but often gorgeous biography of a great explorer

This documentary doesn't have much in the way of new insights, but the stunning archival footage more than makes up for it

From his genuinely world-changing environmental activism to getting an entire Wes Anderson movie made in tribute to him, French diver and explorer Jacques Cousteau lived a life that could fill dozens of biographies. Yet it’s this same fame and iconic life that somewhat hampers Liz Garbus’s Becoming Cousteau, an entertaining and sometimes transfixingly beautiful documentary that can’t really offer much in the way of interesting new insights about Cousteau’s revolutionary life and work.

Spanning almost sixty years, Garbus follows Cousteau’s entire adult life, from his falling in love with the sea as a spear-fishing free-diver in the ‘30s to his tireless work to protect Antarctica in the early ‘90s. She tells this story almost entirely through archival footage backed by voiceovers – with Vincent Cassel reading in for Cousteau himself – which proves a great choice for a life like Cousteau’s. Who needs to cut away to talking heads when you’re blessed with mountains of stunning undersea footage?

That said, you can find a lot of this footage in Cousteau’s own documentaries – most notably his Palme d’Or-winning The Silent World – and the occasional cuts away from the ocean to focus more on Cousteau’s family life are far less captivating than the nature doc stuff on offer here. It does mean there’s the occasional air of “why did this need to be made?” about Becoming Cousteau.

Luckily, you’ll mostly be too engrossed in the beautifully captured stories of deep sea exploration to spend much time weighing on these questions, while the final third, examining just how little progress we’ve made in actually curbing our environmental destruction over the last few decades, is suitably enraging. Jacques Cousteau introduced us to a stunning new earthly frontier, and Becoming Cousteau reminds us just how desperate the need is to protect it.

Becoming Cousteau is now showing in UK cinemas.

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