Review: ‘Captain Ahab’

"Captain Ahab" vividly imagines the formative years of Captain Ahab.

In “Captain Ahab,” French writer-helmer Philippe Ramos vividly imagines the formative years of the antagonist of Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick.” Told in five chapters, from Ahab’s birth to his death at sea, highly stylized period pic has an intimate, rough-hewn feel that’s a little stilted in places. While American auds may not warm to one of their fictional icons getting a fabricated biography en francais, pic collected director and Fipresci gongs at Locarno and should sail into other fests. Europe is a natural berth for arthouse play.

Ahab’s gruff woodsman father (Jean-Francois Stevenin) narrates the first chapter, starting from his wife’s death in childbirth, whereupon he consigns the infant Ahab to his sister-in-law. He reclaims the lad (Virgil Leclaire) some 10 years later.

The boy’s aunt, Rose (Mona Heftre), teaches him to read the Bible, which triggers his imagination (visualized in naive tableaux), but he aspires to be a hunter like his father. Louise (Hande Kodja), a free-spirited young woman his father starts sleeping with, is also a strong influence. But dad’s untimely death puts the boy back in the custody of his pious aunt.

Recounting the second chapter, Rose tries to impose discipline on the willful Ahab, confiscating the locket Louise gave him, and allowing her dandyish husband, Henry (singer Philippe Katerine), to beat him. The boy stages his own kidnapping to get away.

After some misadventures, Ahab washes ashore on the Atlantic coast and is rescued by Pastor Mulligan (Carlo Brandt), whose reminiscences form the third chapter. Ahab learns to fish in the ocean and becomes fascinated by a whale skeleton on the rocky shore.

Events in the fourth chapter, related by widowed Nantucket laundress Anna (Dominique Blanc), take place nearly 30 years later. She discovers the now-legendary whaler (now played by Denis Levant) collapsed in her garden, with part of his leg missing.

Acquiring a peg leg made of whalebone, Ahab sets off on the final chapter of his life, told by his Pequod shipmate, Starbuck (Jacques Bonnaffe). Although this is the only section drawn directly from Melville’s novel, helmer Ramos changes the story in ways that won’t go down well with Melville purists.

Ramos, who also served as editor and art director, found passable Euro locations to stand in for Melville’s 19th-century America. The periscoped images that open the chapters convey both the archaic quality of the story and the nautical theme.

White dominates the visuals long before Ahab sees his nemesis, Moby Dick. It’s especially striking in the fourth chapter, when the sunlit linens of Anna’s laundry surround Ahab. Grandiloquent perfs run the gamut, with Blanc’s lovelorn laundress the most poignant and Katerine’s sadistic Henry the most fun.

Captain Ahab



A Sesame Films (France)/dfm fiction (Sweden) production, in association with Arte France Cinema (France)/Rhone-Alpes Cinema, Film i Vast (Sweden). Executive producer, Florence Borelly. Co-producer, Olivier Guerpillon. Directed, written, edited by Philippe Ramos, freely adapted from the novel "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville.


Camera (color), Laurent Desmet; music, Pierre-Stephane Meuge, Olivier Bombarda, Tonio Matias; art directors, Ramos, Christophe Sartori, Erika von Weissenberg; costume designer, Marie-Laure Pinsard; sound (Dolby SRD), Philippe Grivel. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 6, 2007. Running time: 97 MIN.


Denis Levant, Virgil Leclaire, Dominique Blanc, Jacques Bonnaffe, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Hande Kodja, Bernard Blancan, Mona Heftre, Philippe Katerine, Carlo Brandt. (French dialogue)
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