In the history of Cannes Film Festival, only two documentaries have won the Palme d’Or.
The second documentary to win was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which won in 2004 despite not being a particularly good film. In fact, even by the standards of Michael Moore, it was deceptive and sloppy. However, it was also anti-Bush at a time when the entire world was anti-Bush and that was enough for it to win. (Hilariously, at the time, there was serious talk that Fahrenheit 9/11 would somehow keep Bush from winning reelection, as if anyone who was even thinking of voting for Bush would have ever bothered to sit through Moore’s film.)
Far more interesting than Moore’s screed is the first documentary to win the Palme, 1956’s The Silent World. Narrated and co-directed (with Louis Malle) by the famed oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, the film follows Cousteau and the crew of Calypso over the course of two and a half years, as they explore the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The film was one of those first to make use of underwater color photography, which at the time was quite revolutionary. Chances are that, for many audiences in 1956, The Silent World was their first chance to see what the undersea world was actually like.
Unfortunately, Jacques and his merry band of divers spend a good deal of the documentary destroying stuff. Watching the film, it’s obvious that the divers don’t understand the potential damage of their actions and Cousteau would go on to renounce a lot of the exploration techniques used in The Silent World but still, it’s hard not to occasionally cringe. Watching the divers as they explore the underwater depths, you immediately notice that they seem to be rather grabby, snatching everything that they can off of the ocean floor. When Cousteau feels that a coral reef is getting in the way of his research, he solves the problem with dynamite. Then there’s the scene where the crew of Calypso kill several sharks that are eating the carcass of a baby whale. (Cousteau explains that the shark is the diver’s natural enemy, which may be true but doesn’t excuse the slaughter that follows.) Making all of this even worse is that the baby whale wouldn’t have died in the first place if it hadn’t been hit by the Calypso’s propeller. Scenes like that leave you wondering if maybe it would be better for everyone is Jacques and his crew just went home.
And yet, at the same time, this documentary features scenes of underwater beauty that remains breathtaking even after 62 years. The underwater camera captures schools of beautiful fish ducking out-of-the-way of the human invaders and, in the films most haunting sequence, we follow a diver as he explores a sunken ship. In these moments, the beauty of the underwater world overwhelms you and you forget about your reservations about what’s going on with the crew of the Calypso. In these moments, you embrace the beauty of it all and the world suddenly seems as if its full of limitless possibilities.
In those moments, you can understand why The Silent World not only won an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary but the coveted Palme d’Or as well.