Top 5: films about the sea


At the beginning of March I am showing Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae in Kilburn’s beautiful boat-cum-church The Tin Tabernacle. I thought long and hard about what nautical film I could show in this setting and though I settled on the underrated French gem, I wanted to share some of my other favourite films about the briny. To buy tickets and read more about the event go here.


1. Beau Travail

Claire Denis’ film has developed a sizeable following for its hypnotic telling of a bitter obsession in the French foreign legion. The walls begin to close in on officer Galoup (Denis Levant) as he fixates on Sentain (Gregoire Colin), for reasons that are uncertain. Yet the claustrophobia created by the film is not a matter of enclosure. Instead, Denis gives us the infinite abstract space offered by the sea. The draw distance is limitless, but that only makes the actions on land seem all the more futile, and yet inescapable.


2. I Know Where I’m Going!

Powell & Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! is largely an island film rather than a sea film. Made while the Second World War was raging, we follow Joan Webster (Wendy Hillier) as she tries to reach her fiancé on a remote Scottish island. Torquil Macneil (Roger Livesey) is on shore leave, and when Joan is prevented from making the final leg of her journey to her betrothed, they begin a romance that makes her question her sensible marriage. Powell & Pressburger had a genius at capturing the depth of emotion underneath the stiff upper lip. This is no better seen than in the film’s climactic scene. Joan is saved by Torquil as she tries to make the perilous sea voyage, fleeing her new-found feelings for Torquil. The whirlpool she finds herself drawn into is an obvious but powerful metaphor for the risks of passion, though Torquil is able to navigate them both to safety and eventual happiness.


3. The Green Ray

As I’ve written before, Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is an unusual film that treats a holiday like the burden it can often be. One of the most poignant sections has Delphine (Marie Riviére) finally go to the beach. The sun is shining, she has the companionship of a Pollyanna-ish Swede and even attracts the attention of a brooding, leather-jacketed man. Needless to say, Delphine is awash with ennui at this turn of events, her intractable sadness only more sharply in relief as pleasure seems so close. For a French view of the joys of the seaside, see Jacques Tati’s meticulous and joyful Le Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.

4. Ponyo


Ponyo is maybe the gentlest film in anime god Hiyao Miyazaki’s repertoire, which is ironic given how often the sea is seen as a space of constant threat in animation (Pinocchio‘s whale sequence, Finding Nemo‘s notably harsh view of nature red in tooth in claw). The world it creates is as visually charming as a full rock pool and it has the playful flow of water across the land. It’s hard to think that the same mind produced this delightful parable as made his grand canvas films such as Princess Mononoke or Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Miyazaki took a strong hand in the film’s wave animations and it pays dividends for this underrated gem.


5. The Fog

John Carpenter The Fog has slowly been creeping up the ranking in the horror master’s canon and it’s easy to see why. Although the ultimate reveal of the secrets the sea has been holding is not as satisfying as its set up, the monsters have the satisfyingly rank tang of the sea itself. The opening shots of a town being disturbed by invisible forces are so meticulously framed that the sea itself becomes to seem an invading force, surrounding the town like a threat.

Come along to here and celebrate all that is great in sea and cinema.


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