The film Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue) propelled French deep-sea diver Jacques Mayol into world stardom, inspired by Mayol’s daring feat of diving 100m in one breath and his profound affinity with the sea. Dolphin Man takes us on a journey across Mayol’s life where we travels from Japan to Miami and from Marseille to the islands of Caicos, Kalymnos and Elba. Places of extreme beauty who impacted Mayol, showing us a man who risked his life for fame, to his transformation into a messenger, who reached the limits of the human body and mind, not just to break records but hoping to discover the deeper affinity between human beings and the sea.
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Dolphin Man tells the life story of Jacques Mayol, the greatest free diver in recorded history, whose life became the inspiration for Luc Besson’s cult-movie Le Grand Bleu. It draws us into the world of Jacques Mayol, capturing his compelling journey and immersing viewers into the sensory and transformative experience of free-diving.
Based on rare film archive of Mayol – from the 50’s to the end of the 20th Century in Florida, the Bahamas, Italy and Japan – the film weaves together stunning contemporary underwater photography of the world’s leading free divers with intimate testimonies of Mayol’s closest friends and family, including his children Dottie and Jean Jacques, and world diving champions William Trubridge, Mehgan Heaney-Grier and Umberto Pelizzari.
It charts the path of the record-holding diver from an errant vagabond in post-WWII Canada, to becoming the first diver to reach 100 metres below the sea.
Born in Shanghai in 1927 to French parents, Mayol was taught to dive by Japanese fishermen during family holidays on the island of Karatsu. At the outbreak of WWII, the freedom he had experienced as a child in the East was lost, as his family returned to Marseilles. After the war, Mayol aimlessly travelled across Canada, doing odd jobs as a lumberjack, sailor, waiter and journalist. He found purpose in his life by chance at the Miami Seaquarium in 1958, where he formed a close friendship with a dolphin named Clown. “Clown taught me to hold my breath longer on every dive and to integrate myself with the water totally, slowly, effortlessly,” he said.
He began to study age-old communities with a deep affinity to the sea, like the Ama women pearl divers in Japan and the Greek sponge-divers of Kalymnos, and discovered that they had been diving far deeper on a single breath. For Mayol, these communities of divers were living proof that man could survive deeper underwater. In parallel, he studied yoga and zen philosophy in India and Japan and revolutionized free-diving by showing how yoga breathing techniques and meditation can help him become the first man to reach 100 metres below the sea, but also how diving is linked to an inner journey.
It was in 1976, at the age of 47, aided only by a pair of nose-clips and a 66-pound weight, that he dove into the Mediterranean, reaching the record depth of 100 metres. Pioneering underwater cinematographer Victor De Sanctis was there, recording Mayol’s extraordinary feat. But he also filmed the diver out of the water, capturing the impact of his fame, his relationships with beautiful, young women, his growing affinity with dolphins and the sea, but also Mayol’s darker side, full of personal passions and inner conflicts.
At about that time, a young 16-year-old French scuba diving instructor called Luc Besson, watched De Sanctis’ film on television. He was dumbfounded by the feat and the look on Mayol’s face, when he emerged from the sea. “It was not the fact of seeing him descending into the black water without breathing for four minutes, and experience huge pressure which made me weep, it was the realization that in what seemed to me to be a nightmare, he was feeling terrific. He had a huge smile and was totally relaxed! I was transfixed! Which door had he opened in his head to find such happiness in this nightmare? What did he see in this unfathomable blackness? I do not know what he saw, but he saw it, and that made him terribly happy.”
Besson went on to become one of France’s most famous directors and to create his first international success Le Grand Bleu, based on Mayol’s life. The film, released in 1998, propelled Jacques Mayol into world stardom and popularized free-diving across the world.
Living between the island of Elba and Japan, Mayol kept on diving into his seventies, routinely descending to 40 or 50 meters and finding new meaning in ocean conservation. But with the onset of old-age, he became depressed. He was found hanged at his home on the island of Elba; he left a note which requested that he be cremated, and the ashes scattered at sea.
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT – Lefteris Charitos
Dolphin Man is the story of a charismatic and complex man who divided his life between the land and water, raising awareness about our deep affinity with the sea. He took up free-diving at the age of 40 and lived the rest of his life chasing an elusive dream to reconnect with nature.
An athlete, philosopher and adventurer, Mayol traveled across the world, winning over acolytes through a vision of man’s closeness to the sea and to dolphins.
The film deals with essential issues of human existence. Death, the body’s limits, our return to nature, the traps of personal ambition and fame, the balance of body and soul through meditation: these are the dominant themes of Mayol’s life.
In parallel, I will explore Mayol’s darker side. At 74, he was found dead at his home on the Italian island of Elba. The film will explore the reasons for his suicide, but also the spiritual side of apnea and its connection with death.
Dolphin Man aims to engage the viewer through the senses and emotions. For Mayol, each dive was an attempt to align mind and body. We share this experience, plunging to great depths, where all is black, motionless, frightening and peaceful, and we return to the dazzling light of the surface. This sensory journey is achieved through contemporary underwater filming of the world’s best divers, while we discover what happens to the human body and mind at great depth.
The film will move on two different levels. One is Mayol’s life-story told in a non-linear, thematic way. The other is his legacy and influence today.
The film travels to the US, Japan, Italy, France, Greece and the Bahamas, places of extreme beauty which marked Mayol. The film also uses the unique texture of 16mm film, from Miami of the 50’s, to key events in Mayol’s life, shot by pioneering post-war cinematographers. Additional shooting is carried out in Eilat, Israel.
I will make an adventurous and contemplative film based on stunning location and underwater shooting, blending intimate testimonies of Mayol’s friends, fellow-athletes and family with unseen archival material that bring alive his life-story, while conveying the unique experience of breath-hold diving.
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Lefteris Charitos studied film at Royal College of Arts in London and has directed five fiction and non-fiction series for Greek television, including the highly acclaimed history doc series 1821 and the Zone Defence fiction series, co-directed with Philippos Tsitos. He ran the Let’s Cinema initiative of the Ministry of Culture and Education, introducing cinema to schools and is currently the coordinator of the Digital Film Making Diploma Course at the SAE School in Athens.
FESTIVALS & AWARDS
2017 Tokyo International Film Festival, Japan