Among his many claims to fame, the renowned French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau is often remembered as a pioneer of marine conservation—an impassioned defender of the planet’s most vulnerable sea life. You’d never guess that, though, from watching The Silent World. Over the course of his award-winning 1956 documentary, Cousteau and his crew of fellow deep-sea divers behave less like scientists than asshole tourists, blithely harassing just about every species they encounter during their underwater expedition. The men hitch rides from sea and land turtles alike, climbing onto their shells and ignoring the animals’ plain perturbation. They marvel at the friendliness of one oversized grouper, then grow weary of its company and decide to lock it up in a cage. And they chuck sticks of dynamite into the water, reasoning that studying the collection of corpses that come floating to the surface is the most reliable way to survey the local ecosystem. For many people, Cousteau’s documentary offered a first look at the wonders of life down below. But in the process, it also illustrated a pretty damning (if inadvertent) point: You can’t take humans anywhere.
Of course, it would be a mistake to ever think of Cousteau, who died in 1997, as just a scientist. There was always a big dose of showmanship to the man in the bright red hat, so expertly parodied by Wes Anderson in The Life Aquatic. Just as he’d later take naturally to the duties of television host—building a cult of personality around his puckish, inquisitive nature—Cousteau’s first feature-length documentary is as much about exploring the possibilities of filmmaking as it is about exploring the ocean. “This is a motion-picture studio, 165 feet under the sea,” goes the first line of narration, spoken over a winding shot that plunges the camera straight down into the depths, eventually meeting Cousteau’s team swimming around below. From the blatantly staged conversations to the careful shot selections to (yes, unfortunately) the murder and abuse of various creatures, The Silent World aspires to its own kind of cinematic spectacle. It wants to be a movie first, scientific study a distant second.
Putting the ocean depths up on screen isn’t the only milestone the film achieved. The Silent World was also the first documentary to ever win the highest prize at Cannes, the Palme D’Or—and it remained the only nonfiction recipient of that award until about 40 years later, when Fahrenheit 9/11 parlayed widespread political outrage into a victory. (Don’t be shocked if something similar happens three months from now. I have a hunch the most topically anti-fascist film at the festival will have an instant advantage.) Most years, there are no documentaries eligible for the Palme; unlike Venice or Berlin, Cannes almost never selects them for the main competition, relegating even giants like Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman to special screenings and sidebars. This was less true during the festival’s early years, when nonfiction appeared more often in competition. But it evidently took a special kind of documentary—one that behaved quite a lot like a narrative movie, with characters and a rough “storyline”—to win the support of a jury, led by French actor/director Maurice Lehmann, with a whopping 38 other films from which to choose.
Cousteau already had a reputation, if not quite a full-fledged celebrity cachet, when he opted to translate the spirit of his 1953 bestseller, The Silent World: A Story Of Undersea Discovery And Adventure, to the big screen. The book had focused heavily on early advances in undersea exploration, with Cousteau employing waterproof cameras and then-revolutionary scuba equipment to snap photographs of areas largely unseen by human eyes. For the movie version, Cousteau boarded his leased ship, Calypso, and spent two years traversing stretches of the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. He had some assistance: Plucked basically straight out of film school, future French master Louis Malle (Murmur Of The Heart, My Dinner With Andre) made his directorial debut aboard the Calypso, running the camera above water and helping Cousteau lend dramatic dimension to his team’s various underwater misadventures. (Despite his contributions, for which he received a co-directing credit, Malle was not attributed when the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. By that point, though, he was already working on Elevator To The Gallows, the crackerjack crime movie that’s popularly regarded as his “real” debut.)
For all its eccentric narrative touches, The Silent World is never less than transporting when it’s simply playing it straight as a nature documentary and delivering on its promise to show audiences things they’ve never seen. Sixty some years later, the underwater footage remains breathtaking—a panorama of natural wonders, swimming and swaying and shimmering against a vibrant blue backdrop. There are sequences that flirt with science fiction: When the team comes across a shipwreck, the subsequent expedition plays like a plunge into an alien dimension, as Cousteau and Malle evoke their title by creating an eerie bubble of quiet, disrupted only by the ominous hum of Yves Baudrier’s score, the heavy breathing of the solo diver, and the metallic clang when said diver clears some of the wreckage of rust and algae. If the ocean really is one big movie set, than it comes pre-dressed; simply dunking the camera underwater and rolling was guaranteed to produce some spectacular imagery.
Not that Cousteau was willing to leave wonderment duties strictly to nature. The Silent World is plainly orchestrated. There is, of course, a long tradition of nature documentaries playing fast and loose with the reality they’re purporting to document—a tradition that extends to nonfiction filmmaking in general, going back at least as far as the seminal silent documentary Nanook Of The North. In The Silent World, there’s a fascinating tension between the real sights and sounds Cousteau puts on celluloid and the adventure-serial framework he devises for them; scenes of divers passing through schools of fish or filming a feed frenzy alternate with hilariously scripted conversations aboard the Calypso and events—like the initial location of that sunken ship—that have clearly been restaged from the best possible angles. This, again, is Cousteau flexing his creative muscles, and there are moments that make a strong case for documentaries with a little formal ambition. One spectacular shot finds Malle filming a mighty storm from the mast, looking down on the water-logged deck and providing an early template for the virtuosic shooting strategies of the recent Leviathan. Earlier on, porpoises leap from the water to some triumphant horns-and-drum fanfare, seemingly anticipating—of all things—the “Ride Of The Valkyries” sequence from a later Palme D’Or winner, Apocalypse Now.
Artificiality is a big part of The Silent World’s appeal. Less easy to stomach, or at least simply ignore, is the aforementioned treatment of the film’s aquatic costars, some of which pay a fatal price for just minding their own business in the team’s general vicinity. Cousteau, again, would later become a leading environmentalist, but his careless and even cruel disregard for the animals he films here remains a source of controversy. In the most notorious moment, the Calypso gets too close to a pod of whales and ends up mortally wounding one; when its bloody carcass draws several hungry sharks, the crew proceeds to massacre them, because—as the narration dubiously rationalizes—“For us divers, sharks are our mortal enemies.” This is Cousteau the entertainer overruling Cousteau the thoughtful explorer. Admittedly, there’s a dark humor to some of the callousness; one can object to the filmmakers blowing a reef up for “research” purposes while still chuckling at the moment when the narrator explains the defense mechanism of a dying puffer fish, only to wryly conclude that “The trick does not work on dynamite.”
That narration—performed by James Dugan, but written by Cousteau himself—does wonders for The Silent World; it helps distinguish the movie from the nature-documentary series it predates (and likely influenced), from David Attenborough’s Life to National Geographic to Planet Earth. Deadpan, amused, and sometimes poetic, the voice-over feels like a direct expression of Cousteau’s worldview, the same way that Werner Herzog’s nonfiction works say as much about him as they do about his fascinating subjects. To watch The Silent World is to get a guided tour of places once inaccessible to mankind, before the increased availability of scuba-diving equipment opened up the big blue to vacationers everywhere. But the film also offers an early peak into a less silent world: the mind of its creator, a man whose pull over the imaginations of ocean-obsessed viewers would only increase in the years to follow, as he took his act to television and beyond. Perhaps it was keeping company with Cousteau himself that pushed this unusual, groundbreaking, environmentally irresponsible documentary to a win at Cannes, where only the most personality-driven nonfiction can compete with the fiction. His charm is hard to miss, provided you’re not a fish unlucky enough to swim in front of his lens.
Did it deserve to win? Maybe in a year that didn’t include selections from Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Vittorio De Sica, and Pietro Germi. Oh, and Satyajit Ray, whose poignant Pather Panchali—the first of his classic Apu trilogy, about a boy growing up in rural India—looks in retrospect like the no-brainer choice. Of course, Cannes could stand to honor more documentaries, not less of them. Will this be the year Cousteau and Michael Moore finally get some company in the winner’s circle? Is Joshua Oppenheimer working on anything right now? How about the Sensory Ethnography Lab?
Up next: Terrence Malick squared his own life against that of the whole universe, risking ridicule for transcendence, in his grandly ambitious The Tree Of Life.