Millions of people around the world have discovered the wonders of nature through documentaries. And among their many authors and protagonists, there is a trio of aces who have reigned in their respective domains: if Carl Sagan showed us the cosmos and David Attenborough has taken us to distant lands, the silent world that lies beneath the surface of the oceans was revealed to us by the one who preceded them all, the French explorer and oceanographer Jacques-Ives Cousteau (June 11, 1910 – June 25, 1997).
Cousteau could almost be said to have invented the nature documentary, still in black and white and for the cinema, when television had not yet reached most of the world’s homes. In 1956 and with the co-direction of a young Louis Malle, his portrait of the underwater life now in full colour in Le monde du silence earned the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an honour that would not fall on a documentary film again until 2004. The idea circulates on the Internet that Cousteau coined the term scientific “divulgationism”, and that his way of popularizing science received criticism from the academic world. Unfortunately, today there are other controversies that surround a figure that is indispensable but not without chiaroscuros.
Two elements would mark him: water and cinema
Born in Saint-André-de-Cubzac, a little village more than 30 kilometres from Bordeaux and where today his ashes also rest, the younger of the two Cousteau brothers soon became interested in the two elements that would mark his trajectory, water and the cinema. But after his entry into the French Navy, it seemed that his destiny was not in the sea, but in the air, as a naval pilot. Then in 1936 a traffic accident literally cut off his wings when he broke both arms and almost lost the right one. It was during his rehabilitation, swimming in the sea, when he definitively embraced the passion of his life.
During World War II, Cousteau left the legacy that nowadays divers use the world over. In 1943, in collaboration with the engineer Émile Gagnan, he combined bottles of compressed air with a regulating valve to create what they both called the Aqua-Lung, and that today has passed into the popular language by the acronym of its technical name: Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or SCUBA. The Aqua-Lung was the first practical open-circuit immersion system (the air consumed was expelled to the outside) with the air supplied on demand. Meanwhile, Cousteau’s military operations would lead him to be portrayed for decades as a champion of the French Resistance, to be repeatedly decorated and to distance himself definitively from his brother Pierre-Antoine, an anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi journalist.
The 1950s would mark the rise of the career that made him known around the world. In 1950 he rented an old British minesweeper from an heir of the Guinness brewery for the symbolic rent of one franc a year. Cousteau converted the Calypso into an advanced oceanographic research laboratory, but also into a symbol inseparable from its commander, as was his characteristic red wool cap. Throughout half a century, almost fifty books and more than a hundred documentaries have consecrated him as the great founding father of marine ecology.
The last great adventurer of the century
Cousteau died in Paris in 1997 of a heart attack. However, before his death, the waters of his life began to muddy. In 1979, his son Philippe, his natural continuator, died in a seaplane accident. To make up for the loss, Cousteau turned to his eldest son Jean-Michel, but their relationship was so complicated that he ended up in a legal dispute over the use of the surname, which would continue after his death. Neither was his image improved when it came to light, following the death from cancer of his wife Simone in 1990, that for years Cousteau had carried on an extramarital relationship with another woman, Francine Triplet, with whom he had had two children.
However, the greatest wound to his reputation began to open in 1993, with the publication of a biography written by the French journalist Bernard Violet in which data was revealed that said, in effect, the Cousteau had spied on the Italians in World War II, but not for the French Resistance, but for the government of the German occupation in Vichy; or that he presented his first documentary to the Nazi leadership in Paris; or that his first documentaries concealed manipulated scenes and practices damaging to the environment. Cousteau was no doubt a complex figure, but as Violet himself acknowledged, he was “perhaps the last great adventurer of the century.”