Océans: The Fish Story That Is Sweeping France

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Galatee Films

Horse mackerel in the documentary Océans

Take that, George Clooney. Though the American film heartthrob is still the favorite actor of millions of movie lovers around the world, in France these days he's being outdrawn by a bunch of fish. Score that as a win for Océans, a spectacular new French maritime documentary that has done not only twice as much business as Up in the Air since both movies were released on Jan. 27, but is also looking to set a new mark for nature films when it rolls out internationally in the coming months.

Océans is the work of veteran actor, director and producer Jacques Perrin, who co-wrote and co-produced the movie with sidekick Jacques Cluzaud. The film is a look into the world's seas and the creatures that populate them, carrying an appeal to halt humanity's steady destruction of habitat and species. But Océans is no Jacques Cousteau rehash, and its environmental message, while alarming, doesn't impose the sense of doom central to recent films like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth or Frenchman Yann Arthus-Bertrand's Home. Instead it seduces the viewer to the maritime cause with awe-inspiring imagery, creating an almost emotional attachment between viewer and cinematic object by bringing the camera into astonishing intimacy with erstwhile unapproachable beings. At one point, a mother walrus hugs her baby protectively as she swims. At another, a diver caresses and plays with an 18-foot, 1-ton great white shark nicknamed "Lady Mystery."

Océans involved two years of planning and four years of filming, spread over 70 expeditions to 54 shooting locations — resulting in 450 hours of rushes. In that process, Perrin consulted with French navy engineers to come up with casings, booms and vehicle technologies allowing cameras to move with the same speed, agility and, at times, airborne abilities of otters, dolphins and whales. He and his crew also perfected a system of maintaining perfect camera stability at high speed amid unpredictable ocean currents.

Special tanks allowed filmmakers to breathe without expelling telltale and potentially alarming bubbles into the ocean, permitting camera crews to remain submerged for much longer periods of time than usual and to fade into their aquatic surroundings. The resulting invisibility allowed them to record spectacular group and individual behavior of mammals and fish that would have otherwise been spooked by a disruptive human presence. Thanks to that, Team Perrin recorded a giant ball of thousands of horse mackerel slowly rolling in unison, the full-speed stampede of countless joy-driven dolphins and the slow march of hundreds of thousands of crabs.

Océans drew nearly 105,000 spectators in its first 48 hours in French theaters, compared with 45,000 for Clooney's Up in the Air (first place was Disney's The Princess and the Frog with 145,000 customers). Océans was expected to have at least doubled those figures this past weekend. It will roll out across Europe and Asia before its April 22 U.S. release.

A veteran actor who worked in films like Z, Girl with a Suitcase, Cinema Paradiso and, more recently, The Chorus, Perrin produced the 1996 film Microcosmos — a documentary that followed insects at close range. He followed that up with the 2001 film Winged Migration, which came up with new filming techniques that moved along with birds in flight. Most French reviewers seem to agree, however, that Océans is Perrin's most effective work yet in terms of evoking solidarity with endangered nature. It is part of his agenda. He told Le Monde, "We're entertainers, and I don't want to be pretentious and start moralizing. But Océans is part of our means of persuasion. We must react urgently, protect, create blue helmets for the sea. Otherwise, humanity is headed toward an unbearable solitude."