“We sea men are not normal. They call us 'sub' because we really are sub-normal. Because what Jacques Mayol did was not normal. If that had been normal we would have been really crazy.” – Giancarlo Formichi, underwater cinematographer and friend of Jacques Mayol
A thoughtful, multi-layered look at the life of free-diver Jacques Mayol (perhaps best known to cineastes as the inspiration for Luc Besson’s divisive but world-famous 1988 film The Big Blue), Dolphin Man is a far more complex film than its title would have you believe.
Somehow, director Lefteris Charitos has combined three very different kinds of film – the nature documentary, the voyeuristic thrills of an extreme sports film, and an apparently straightforward biopic – into something infinitely more compelling that transcends all three.
As fans of The Big Blue will be primed to expect, this film is stunningly beautiful to look at. Many of Mayol’s friends were underwater cinematographers, and the footage of divers, dolphins, reefs and waves here – both archival and newly shot for Dolphin Man – is gorgeous and worth the admission price alone. A moment when Mayol swims with two humpback whales engaged in a mating dance will make your jaw drop, while shots of fragile human bodies plunging into huge expanses of ocean feed into another kind of voyeurism.
Jacques Mayol swimming underwater with dolphins Bimini and Stripe in the Bahamas, in Μarch 1994 (photo: Junji Takasago)
As a species, we seem to be continually fascinated with those members of the tribe who try to transcend their humanity. What possesses certain humans to push the limits of what their bodies can do? From professional athletes to mountain climbers, the idea of overcoming the body’s shortcomings, often juxtaposing themselves against extremes of nature far more powerful than any of us could ever be.
Mayol’s obsession was the ocean; immersing himself within it, and as the first person ever to free-dive (without equipment) 100 metres, he pioneered a technique of self-induced apnea, deliberately slowing his breathing and heart rate in order to survive the crushing pressure of the depths. He studied from Buddhist monks and Zen masters, practising yoga and meditation to exert control over the excesses of self; the fight as much man against himself as man against ocean.
His writings, intoned in honeyed, burring voiceover by actor Jean Michel Barr, who played a heavily fictionalised 'Jacques Mayol' in The Big Blue, reveal a philosophy of life and diving inspired both by Zen calm and a need to prove himself more dolphin than human.
Dean's Blue Hole, Bahamas, one of the prime free-diving locations in the world (photo: Daan Verhoeven)
Mayol’s life story is intercut with footage of the contemporary stars of the free-diving movement he helped inspire. The camera sits in on classes at the (terrifying-sounding) Apnea Academy, where rows of divers learn to suppress their natural instincts to breathe; we watch footage of tiny, silhouetted bodies pushing themselves further and further down into the blue and feel the tension creeping up on us in the soundtrack.
What makes this film so emotionally compelling, however, is the man at its core, and his relationship with humanity, not the sea or the sport. There’s something of the reckless loner glamour of a Kerouac or a James Dean clinging to Jacques Mayol; knowingly winking newsreel footage from the 1960s paints him as an international playboy of the oceans, diving from yachts with a blonde bathing beauty at his side, and old comrades giggle about “Jacques’ girls”; about that time he decided to make an underwater porn film; the daughter from the family he abandoned at thirty mentions, sadly, spending her childhood missing him. He’s the sort of man stories are written about, indeed, films are made about, and the iconography around him is familiar – he could be James Bond, a young Richard Burton, or Alain Delon. However, Charitos’ film is too intelligent to fall for the fairy tale.
Jacques Mayol with US free-diving champion and marine conservationist Mehgan Heaney-Grier
In The Big Blue, Mayol, who helped write the script, portrays himself as a restless dreamer, devoted to the sea, who will never possibly be satisfied by the love of a woman. An all-too well-worn dichotomy – man / nature / freedom versus woman / domesticity / constraint – is set up in the movie’s unconvincing love story, its narrative priming us to root for 'Jacques Mayol’s' desire to live at one with nature.
Perhaps this is the story that Mayol told himself; however the family and friends describing his last days, in his early seventies, alone at his home on the island of Elba, talk of a man who felt he’d missed his chance at human connection. While his fictional avatar could drift off with dolphins at the end of the movie, leaving a pregnant landlocked wife behind, we see that the cost of a real life lived in thrall to the sea is loneliness; much of it self-inflicted, although following the murder of his girlfriend Gerda in the late 1960s, Mayol seems to have become very cynical about humanity for some time, telling friends it would be better for the world if the human race didn’t exist.
His daughter chokes on her tears as she explains that her father, just before his suicide, told her he’d genuinely believed that at some point he would have a second chance, another wife and family, and that it had never happened.
Charitos manages to bring all this to a tender coda, though. Mayol’s legacy was the creation of a new consciousness and mindfulness, a philosophy permeating the sport of freediving and, slowly, hopefully, influencing how we consider the ocean and our relationship to it today.
Those divers he inspired – including his lookalike son Jean Jacques, who takes the camera down to Mayol’s sea-bed gravestone – show us two, even three generations of people ready and committed to take up his life’s work.
Dolphin Man now in the MOVING DOCS Home Cinema
Dolphin Man is now available in the MOVING DOCS Home Cinema. Pricing is currently shown in US dollars but the film is available worldwide.