Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review: Voyage to the End of the World

Voyage to the End of the World (1976)
Directed by Philippe Cousteau
Starring: Jacques Cousteau
Grade: B

Written for Subtitled Online:

‘We are witnesses to the vanishing of an eternity,’ Philippe Cousteau proclaims in the final breaths of his documentary, “Voyage to the End of the World,” as his father Jacques reaches the end of his journey to the outer-reaches of the South Pole. Of all the faraway cultural landscapes and alien habitats open to exploration, Antarctica appears to be the en-vogue topic of the moment; Luc Jacquet’s “March of the Penguins” chronicled the life cycle of its bird-dwellers, while more recently Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” sees the renowned director ape the Cousteau family’s 1975 cross-continental trip. As mentioned in the film, this journey marks a two-hundred-year anniversary of explorer Captain James Cook’s crossing of the Antarctic Circle during his circumnavigation of the globe in the 18th century.

Despite Cousteau’s established attachment to the underwater world as an oceanographer, evident in his work for National Geographic, and Oscar-winning feature “Le Monde du Silence,” this marked the man’s most daring endeavour to date. In 1973 Captain Cousteau set sail for Antarctica in his boat Calypso, accompanied by a crew that included his son Philippe, a previous collaborator and partner on TV series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” The film follows the Cousteau and the Calypso from the time that it arrives at the South Pole, to the end of the exploration of its waters. While a prolific filmmaking duo during their time together, Philippe would work with his father just one more time after “Voyage” – in their search for the lost continent of Atlantis – before a boat crash caused his untimely death in 1979, at the age of thirty-nine.

While primarily an ode to the South Seas and their unorthodox array of creatures, “Voyage to the End of the World” is just that – a voyage – and it manages to convey the sense of journeyman in Cousteau et crew particularly well given that there isn’t a diary-structure as such. One of its most appealing attributes is that P. Cousteau doesn’t get too overdetermined with creating a compelling narrative outside of marine life and glacial terrain. But for a brief segment where he mourns the tragic accidental loss of Michel Laval, the ship’s second-in-command, the emphasis is always placed upon gaining insight into a world we know relatively little about – especially considering that this occurred nearly forty years ago. When P. Cousteau does attempt to inject drama it’s usually through presenting the landscape as a hurdle for the expedition; the group must first navigate an active volcano and later navigate a pool of icebergs in order to progress safely.

What’s achieved is largely through exercising a patient approach, understated up to its euphoric final moments, even as P. Cousteau pertains to include swooping aerial shots and a graceful musical score. Father and son also alternate between providing voice-over commentary, resisting literary intonation in favour of a more practical impression of the place. The aesthetic qualities of “Voyage to the End of the World” lie in its faithfulness to the sea – perhaps not surprising as both father and son are proven pioneers in the field of documentarianism. Their welcome desire to leave this distant climate unimposed allows the forays into penguin behaviour and deepwater organisms to provoke their own inherent allure and magic; the Cousteaus project romantic ideas onto Antarctica but don’t purport to be above their station as fledgling voyagers. They remain incredibly respectful of it as a haven for sailors, naturalists, enthusiasts in its untouched state.

Above all, Cousteau creates the impression of Antarctica as a tranquil odyssey, aided heavily by Editor Hedwige Bienvenu’s fluid, assured style. While “Voyage to the End of the World” wanes a little in interest in the middle section, that’s more a result of pedantic explanation of processes than it is of the film’s diminishment as a visual showpiece. It’s pieced together with loving delicacy and thoughtful flair; a stripped-bare, simplistic presentation of life in the South, and a reservedly charming engagement with the natural world. As the film builds towards an underwater climax, Cousteau and crew’s passion for this unknown corner of the world is felt – without the need for heavy personalisation or dramatic camerawork.

Serenely mastered, “Voyage to the End of the World” is Cousteau’s love letter to nature; in particular the mystery and metaphysics beneath Antarctica’s oceanic expanse. It’s a modestly-played documentary designed more towards developing intrigue through a meditative comb of the location rather than an exciting adventure story, and surely succeeds in opening our eyes to the mystical beauty of a wilderness and the settlers who inhabit it. More concerned with the power of imagery than a need to educate and inform, the film finds a median between postcard admiration and spiritual fascination in detailing – what many believed to be – the point at which civilisation ceased to exist.

Voyage to the End of the World has recently been released on DVD and Blu-ray.

No comments: