Luc Jacquet's year-long stay in the Antarctic to film the Emperor penguin has resulted in a documentary that's bowling over critics and audiences alike, writes Susan Oh
The Emperor's Journey begins by describing the often arduous mating ritual of the Emperor penguin - a trip that's wrought with danger but based on an act of love. The same could be said of director Luc Jacquet's frozen journey from the vast Antarctic to the red carpet with his directorial debut and first feature film, which has gone on to become the second-highest grossing documentary, behind Fahrenheit 9/11.
Jacquet's first foray into the Antarctic began when, aged 24, he answered a student job-board posting for a nature photographer to go 'to the ends of the world'. Although he didn't know how to work a camera, the behavioural scientist with a Masters degree from Lyon University did a 10-day crash course on 35mm cameras - and got the job.
'I went the first time as a scientist,' says Jacquet of the Antarctic. But he emerged as a storyteller, impelled to show others the sparse magnificence he found there. Thirteen years later, he's still roaming the South Pole.
Jacquet and his crew spent more than a year braving the Antarctic's ice storms and treacherous terrain, in order to capture the Emperor penguins' curious mating ritual.
Every winter, thousands of the penguins, which can grow up to 1.2m tall and weigh 40kg, leave the sea to waddle inland, slowly and in single file, to their traditional breeding grounds. Like bottom-heavy penitents, their heads bowed against the 240km/h winds, they march more than 110km in temperatures of minus 56 degrees Celsius, to mate and lay a single egg where the ice is thickest.
Once the egg is laid, a delicate dance is played out in passing it from mother to father. He prevents it from freezing, and loses a third of his weight in the two months he goes without eating while the mother heads back to the sea to get food for their young. Many thousands don't make it - nor do many eggs or chicks.
Cinema has often had a misguided and comedic romance with the penguin. With its jaunty, side-to-side gait, the penguin seems naturally comic. From Wallace & Gromit's Tennessee Tuxedo, to, most recently, the stealthy birds of Madagascar, the penguin may seem a hard-sell as a romantic lead.
But under Jacquet's sympathetic eye, they're transformed into heroes in the drama for survival. Even if it weren't for the heart-tugging story, the film is visually stunning.
Jacquet's high-definition photography captures anthropomorphic, tender and funny moments between mates and offspring in dazzling intensity. A surprise international hit, The Emperor's Journey has been universally hailed by critics (described by one critic as 'Dr Zhivago by way of Dr Dolittle').
The cinematography of the Antarctic landscape is equally stirring. 'It's white, on white, on white, on white - infinitely pure,' says Jacquet of his favoured shooting grounds.
Jacquet is a rugged, good-natured bear of a man, standing more than 1.82m tall. At once an impassioned storyteller and no-nonsense observer of animal behaviour, he's quick to scoff at the notion that this is a love story.
'For me, it's more the story of survival for the species,' he says. 'Love is just the necessary mechanism for survival. Everything you need for a good drama is inherent in the life of the [Emperor] penguin.'
Jacquet's life these days is a different story altogether. He spent four years getting The Emperor's Journey to the big screen, and now he's ready to move on to the next project.
He's planning a film that will examine humanity's often complex relationship with nature and wildlife through the rapport between a little girl and a wild fox. 'The scientist [in me] measures what the behaviour means,' he says. 'But it's the filmmaker who experiences the drama of what's unfolding. The two are inseparable if I'm to translate the science into a narrative that resonates emotionally with people.'
The father of young daughters, aged two and five, Jacquet stays connected to nature by skiing and walks in the forest in France's eastern Jura region, where he's lived all his life. He also tends a vegetable patch and chickens in his time off.
'When, all of a sudden, you're driving around in limousines, staying in five-star hotels and eating in expensive restaurants, it's easy to forget who you are,' he says. 'So, sometimes, it's good to keep chickens at home.'
The Emperor's Journey (French and Cantonese versions) opens on September 29