Review: ‘Dolphin Man’

An ironic and poignant fish-out-of-water tale

6 mins read

Dolphin Man
(Canada/Greece, 77 min.)
Dir. Lefteris Charitos

“I am like an animal,” says Jacques Mayol. “I live intensely in the moment.”

Late free diver Jacques Mayol was hardly the first person to compare himself to an animal, and he will not be the last. Mayol’s story is one of the sea, a journey through the depths of human endeavour as director Lefteris Charitos portrays the diver’s intense love for the ocean. Many characters in Dolphin Man refer to Mayol as “the French Dolphin” and few people share such close affinity with non-human animals. Mayol’s only equals might be Jane Goodall with chimps, or Anne Innis Dagg with giraffes. Mayol truly thrives underwater and, like the dolphins, he mostly comes up for air to fill his lungs and return below the surface. But when a human is more comfortable in water than on dry land, this poignant documentary reveals how turbulent life can be.

Dolphin Man charts a cradle to grave story about the late diver. It follows Mayol’s journey from being hooked after his first childhood plunge with Japanese ama divers, swimming with endurance underwater to harvest the oysters below to his last dive off the shores of Italy. Unlike most people on the high seas, however, Mayol doesn’t view the ocean as something to be harvested for humankind. He sees it as a place of harmony and a source of life to which all beings on the planet have great responsibility.

Mayol thrives in the water, learns to develop his lung capacity, and masters his breathing to stay below the surface much longer than his peers do. The doc follows his journey charting new depths for free divers by plunging himself further towards the ocean floor than any diver before, reaching landmark distances of 100 metres and pushing himself to break his own records. A friendly rivalry ensues with fellow diver Enzo Maiorca, yet Mayol consistently proves himself the bigger fish, gaining fame and publicity as a man of the sea.

The doc weaves this portrait with an impressive range of archival footage shot deep within the ocean. This visually stunning film pairs the vintage reels with some newly-shot underwater scenes that use the clarity and detail of high definition cameras to provide an immersive view of the waters that gave Mayol such joie de vivre. The clear blue of the ocean is serene and calming, but also cold and dangerous as the film shows with each chilling dive that reveals the complexity of Mayol’s isolation.

There are some interviews scattered throughout the film with Mayol’s, family, friends and colleagues. His daughter, Dottie, provides some emotional accounts of a distant man who abandoned his family at the age of 30 because he felt a stronger pull to the fish of the ocean than to the guppies in his very home. Tales of Mayol’s estrangement from his family intertwine deftly with stories of his success as the diver has fewer people with whom to share his victories. Dottie recalls a particularly tragic episode in which her father finally found happiness in his relationship to a German woman named Gerda, a romance he long hid from this family, only to have his hopes for a second family cut cruelly short when she was stabbed in a Florida supermarket and died in his arms. It becomes clearer that the more Charitos plunges us further into Mayol’s aquatic environment, the more the abyss of the ocean provides an escape the dolphin man.

Although Mayol is no longer around to tell his story, Charitos ensures that the diver is present in every frame thanks to the diary entries and letters that provide the narration. Actor Jean-Marc Barr, who played Mayol in Luc Besson’s 1988 hit film The Big Blue, reprises his role as the diver and reads these ruminations in voiceover. Barr inhabits his character with great heart and his deep, reflective narration lets audiences explore the depths of Mayol’s mind. While plunging audiences into Mayol’s love for the ocean, Dolphin Man provides a ponderous essay on the intimate connection between humans and the natural environment. It’s equally profound as a parable about the social dynamics that characterize human and non-human animals, as the French Dolphin struggles to find the connections he craves on land in the water—an ironic and poignant fish-out-of-water tale.

Dolphin Man opens in Toronto at the Carlton on Friday, Nov. 9 with a special screening on Friday evening at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Dolphin Man trailer from Moving Docs on Vimeo.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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