It is hard to imagine a better version of Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World, and that is a troubling fact. Lit with a fluorescent technicolor expressiveness, this non-narrative documentary of undersea images is like a peek through the looking glass of another world, exactly the magical, alien world of whimsy and majesty that Cousteau dedicated his life to and dared to see in his dreams. With the soon-to-be seminal Louis Malle (who would direct through the French New Wave and then hop on over to Hollywood) by his side, The Silent World is a visuals-first extravaganza of lush, hysterical colors and evocative silences. All these years later, it is also, perhaps unintentionally, a showpiece for the arrogance of mankind, and the terror of humanity at its egotistical worst.
Not so much an adaptation of Cousteau’s book (of the same name) as a variation on it, The Silent World, ironically, recalls the demented playfulness of so many silent films from Murnau and Chaplin. Whimsy, humor, and tragedy intertwine and become indistinguishable as we feast on what amounts to Cousteau making play with the sea and its creatures. At a mechanical level, Cousteau’s intent is clear: to play, and to visualize the sheer joy he experiences from a life at sea. He is clearly fascinated with the caverns and crevices of undersea life, an ecosystem that exists silently, to him, or without human knowledge. The sea, for many people, he must believe, is an afterthought, something to pass by without consideration, or a dream-land of wonder and distance that feels more like a storybook than a real earthly location hewn by millennial tectonics.
On one level, The Silent World is an attempt to bring humanity toward the sea, but such a view is dishonest and incomplete. The William Castle-level of palpable, infectious joy in Cousteau’s eyes and narration does not evoke the sea as reality, but as fairy tale, and the colorful diorama of storybook life underneath tackles the sea not as reality but human fantasy. It becomes Cousteau’s jungle-gym, and the underwater cameras (revolutionary when this film was released), evoke another planet of mystery, fantastique, wonder, and even horror.
A landscape that Cousteau is plainly infatuated with, but infatuated how? As playground for humanity, it seems. Cousteau doesn’t show respect for the sea world (he would grow more interested in preservation and environmentalism later in his life), but a boyish zeal to explore and disturb. The tone of the film can best be described as “boys drunkenly partying under the sea”, and the experience of watching isn’t far off. At one point, Cousteau plays with a fish he dubs “Ulysses” mockingly, trying to make it his pet until it rebuts and he throws it back with a wry, smug remark: “We’ll never forget you, Ulysses”.
This tone of sardonic superiority smothers the film; Cousteau exhibits no pangs of empathy when using dynamite (and proudly using it, as his narration informs us) with the lustful pyromania and bloodlust of a child, killing many fish and disturbing the ecosystem in the process. At one point, his ship runs into a whale, which he blames for getting in the way of the ship, and then he has the gall to seek revenge on the sharks that arrive to eat the whale’s carcass. He reveals not remorse, but a childish desire to wreak havoc and blame others for his wrongdoing.
Cousteau’s film has been compared to the later works of Werner Herzog, who similarly found himself intoxicated by the “voodoo of location” and displayed a nasty playfulness as a cruel Dr. Seuss of a narrator, mocking nature and the audience and himself and everything he could dream up. He too found himself trapped in a certain perplexing fanciful view of nature with Aguirre. But with his later documentary films, Herzog engaged in self-critique, exploring the ways that his documentaries could only ever be his perspective, and could not truly provide “objectivity”. His documentaries challenged the core of the documentary principle, dexterously re-reading documentary filmmaking as another form of fictional subjectivity filtered through the lens of the filmmaker. Herzog was playful, nasty, and reflective, while Cousteau exhibits not one ounce of the latter quality. Even for his own men; more than once, he flippantly produces a gallows, deadpan remark about “hoping” his men will survive interaction with sharks or other creatures, delivered in a tone to suggest he doesn’t really care what happens. He seems less like Herzog than Aguirre, the maddened man of unmatched hubris depicted in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, led to his doom by the beckoning of his soul in the Amazon.
Which, honestly, makes the film a more profound viewing experience, regardless of Cousteau’s intent. It is unclear what Malle felt about the film, other than that he makes no effort to hide the exuberant attitude toward undersea abuse and murder on Cousteau’s behalf. The Silent World becomes an extremely uncomfortable viewing explore. We become voyeurs, implicated in his brash actions, and we ponder what a whimsical, mystical view of nature might really mean for the way we interact with nature. Filtered through The Silent World, nature becomes a playhouse for the human imagination, and we sicken at the realization that the human imagination is a cruel, demonizing hell. If we view nature as a beautiful fantasy, we patronize it and subjugate it, rather than respecting it. We can see, all these years later, why Herzog preferred a mundane view of bears as “half-bored” in their interest in food; he saw no other world in them, and it may be for the best.
None of this is moral, nor is the accidental commentary intentional on Cousteau’s behalf (unless his mind was working in ways no human can imagine). But, as a boundlessly reckless unintentional horror film about the quest for knowledge and science gone wrong, the experience is compulsive, magnetic, and grossly disturbing all the same.