Capitaine Achab

French film maker Philippe Ramos has recently released a film titled Capitaine Achab (Captain Ahab). It’s the story of Herman Melville’s obsessed sea captain, from the time he was a young boy until his last, fatal meeting with Moby Dick. The film won the FIPRESCI prize at the 60th annual Locarno (Switzerland) film festival. FIPRESCI is the Federation Internationale de la Presse Cinematographique or International Federation of Film Critics.

Ramos’ idea is interesting: imagine — and fill in the gaps of — Ahab’s life, which was sketched but not drawn in detail by Melville in Moby Dick. Ramos presents Ahab’s story in a series of vignettes. In presenting the tale in this fashion, the film maker deviates from the style of Melville’s classic novel, which is packed with details on everything from whaling techniques to a psychological study of the interplay between Pip the cabin boy and Ahab. Instead, Ramos gives us five miniatures of Ahab’s life, almost like five Vermeer oils, visually arresting and providing just enough detail to get a sense of Ahab’s development.

Each vignette or chapter has a different focal character. The first chapter is entitled “The Father”. The film opens with Ahab’s mother lying dead, and follows with the boy’s father, a hunter, falling in love with a much younger woman, Louise. Louise then falls in love with a travelling landscape artist. The resulting love triangle ends in the death of Ahab’s father, and the young Ahab is now completely alone, an orphan at the mercy of relatives.

Ahab is taken in by Rose, Ahab’s dead mother’s sister, and the second chapter begins. “Rose” begins with a look at Ahab’s pious aunt, who although deeply religious, longs for sexual satisfaction. She marries a dandy, and while the cries of their coupling fill the house, Ahab plots his escape. He fakes his own kidnapping, and heads off on series of Huckleberry Finn-like adventures that end up with him found, unconscious, by Mulligan, who nurses him back to health. “Mulligan” shows Ahab being brought up by the religious man of the title, who wants to turn Ahab into a man of the church. Ahab ultimately revolts, and quits the church. This is the last we see of the young Ahab.

The adult Ahab appears next in “Anna”, where he is found laying in her courtyard, one of his legs a bloody stump. Anna nurses Ahab back to health, and has him fitted out with a whalebone leg. She thinks she can hold Ahab now that he is crippled, but Ahab is driven by vengeance, and will not stay long with Anna. He needs to get revenge on the whale that bit off his leg. The last vignette is titled “Starbuck”, after the Pequod’s first mate, who of course also appeared in Melville’s novel. This segment starts with the Irish Rovers singing “What Will We Do with the Drunken Sailor” over vintage black and white footage of whalers in pursuit of a whale, a nod to the 1956 John Huston film version of Moby Dick. After this, the film goes back to its minimalist style. Ahab convinces Starbuck that they need to find the great whale, the doubloon (the prize for the first person to spy the whale) is nailed to the masthead as in the book, and in the final scene, Ahab lowers the whale boats to chase Moby Dick, and after the harpoon is launched he grabs the rope and goes to the depths with the White Whale.

Certainly, this film doesn’t follow the exact events of the novel. There is no Ishmael, we don’t know what happens to the Pequod. But then again, the story is about Ahab. We have learned from the early scenes that Ahab was an orphan, abandoned, constantly searching for his lost mother. If there is a weakness in the film, it is that the adult Ahab shows up on Anna’s doorstep with little explanation. His entry into the whaling life is not shown, nor his rise to the rank of captain. His first struggle with the White Whale is only hinted at. Still, the film is beautifully photographed, the soundtrack is inspired, and the vignette approach to Ahab’s life is a nice touch. This is only Philippe Ramos’ second feature-length film. He is a film maker to watch. If you are a Moby Dick fan, this film is definitely of interest. If you haven’t read the book, seeing this film may prompt you to pick it up and read it.

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LitKicks is happy to have Michael Norris as our Paris correspondent (he also posts poetry here as Dr. Placebo). Melville fans reading of this film may also recall the novel Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, which may or may not have influenced Ramos in making this film. — Levi Asher

5 Responses

  1. Nice report on an
    Nice report on an interesting-sounding film. Are there subtitles? Just curious. Hitchcock once said that a well-made movie doesn’t need subtitles. I don’t know if he was 100% correct on that.

  2. I saw this film in France, in
    I saw this film in France, in French, so I don’t know if it is available with English subtitles. Perhaps a well made movie doesn’t need subtitles, but there are a heck of a lot of them that do! This film, for a person that doesn’t speak French, would need some subtitles, although you could get the global meaning just by watching the film, via the images. Which ain’t bad. Perhaps this film will surface in DVD.

  3. This sounds wonderful. I’m a
    This sounds wonderful. I’m a huge Melville fan and this looks like it is wonderfully sympathetic to the Ahab myth … here I come!

  4. just watched the gregory peck
    just watched the gregory peck ahab great movie from 50’s….i’ll see this for sure can’t wait….and regarding subtitles, for me there’s no big deal, they disappear in my wired mind after 5 minutes….

  5. I, too, went out and got a
    I, too, went out and got a copy of the Gregory Peck movie and watched it. Then I re-read the book. It was a completely Moby experience!

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!