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Adelaide Film Festival review: Dolphin Man

Film & TV

Fans of Luc Besson’s cult film The Big Blue are guaranteed to be fascinated by Dolphin Man.

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This stunning documentary delves into the life, philosophy and adventures of Jacques Mayol, the world-famous free diver who inspired the French classic, revealing the intriguing person behind the legend.

Directed by Greek filmmaker Lefteris Charitos and narrated by Jean-Marc Barr, the actor who played Mayol in The Big Blue, Dolphin Man showcases the life of a man completely devoted to the ocean. Mayol was far more than the first person to free-dive to the depth of 100m. He was a conservationist, a philosopher and an athlete who travelled the world as a water and woman-loving vagabond.

As a child, Mayol was entranced by dolphins and one of his first jobs once he settled with his wife and children in Florida was working as a dolphin trainer at the Miami Seaquarium. His love of dolphins and the ocean soon proved stronger than his commitment to family, and while his children were still small he took off, travelling the world with only his passport, mask and fins to his name.

There was far more to Mayol than just being able to hold his breath for an astoundingly long time. He had an incredible affinity for both the sea and all marine life, and this documentary cleverly weaves together archival footage of his exploits with interviews with those closest to him and contemporary footage of the world’s best free-divers who have learned and benefitted from his legacy.

Part of the extraordinary nature of Mayol’s achievements in continually pushing the limits of the human body was his study and practice of yoga and zen philosophy in both India and Japan. He studied the breathing and meditation techniques of these ancient traditions to learn how to slow his heart and calm his mind. The philosopher in Mayol saw a spiritual side to both apnoea and being in the ocean, considering them to be pathways to reconnection with the natural world.

Despite holding world records and being famous within the diving community, Mayol was rocketed to superstardom after the release of Besson’s now classic film The Big Blue.  He used the spotlight to good effect for many years, promoting marine conservation and mentoring free-divers. However, fame and its inevitable dimming took a toll and Mayol, who had endured bouts of depression throughout his life, eventually committed suicide at the age of 74.

The footage of Mayol’s myriad achievements both on land and in the water, blended with contemporary underwater cinematography of leading free-divers such as Will Trubridge and Mehgan Heaney-Grier, all combine to make this documentary a unique biographical experience.

This is a fascinating exploration of a most intriguing life and fans of The Big Blue will find the fleshing out of Mayol’s character in Dolphin Man to be compulsive viewing.

Dolphin Man will screen again at the GU Film House on October 15 as part of the Adelaide Film Festival. Read more Film Festival stories and reviews here.

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