A Niçois power couple’s inspiring tale of perseverance in their seemingly impossible quest to bridge sports, arts, and cultures
You probably have seen them… those viral videos on social media showing a human mermaid perform an underwater ballet as elegantly as if she were floating across a stage made of planks. And maybe you were also one of the 30 million or so who watched “Free Fall”, the short film of a free diver who walks along the edge of the legendary Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas before jumping into the darkness of the world’s second deepest underwater cavern (-202 metres).
Few viewers realize though that it was Julie Gautier, known to the wide public as a graceful underwater dancer, who shot Guillaume Néry’s daredevil free dive. And fewer yet know that this couple lives in Nice. We had a rare chance to visit with them, and discovered a unique life story. You could call it a love story at the brink of the abyss… the abyss of the planet, that is. On terra firma, this is a rock solid couple that has been welded by life’s challenges and their shared, unusual interests.
“Roberto, mio palmo!”
The lure of the ocean is as old as mankind itself. Since the dawn of time, humans have dived, venturing ever further into the mysterious world underwater, mostly to procure food. But it was not until the early 20th century that diving became a real sport. It soon became increasingly athletic, with records falling in rapid succession; but fascinating as it was, the activity was still largely considered the pastime of a handful of daredevils, critically looked upon by physicists and scientists. That would, however, change once and for all with Le Grand Bleu: the 1988 cult movie revives the epic real-life competition of two rivaling free divers.
Luc Besson’s streetsweeper makes a splash. The broad audience falls in love with the fascinating world beneath the surface… But for the first time, the emphasis is not only on the amazing beauty and silence underwater, but also on the physically challenging sport of free diving that before had been getting little attention from the masses. The film turns its protagonists, Jacques Mayol, Enzo Maiorca, and Claude Chapuis, into sports legends. And in 1990, quite unexpectedly, Nice plants its footprint in the sand (or rather, its flipper prints in the pebble beach) to become “the birthplace of modern free diving”. Soon, an international organization for the development and promotion of freediving called AIDA is founded, and Nice is positioning itself as one of the world’s premier competition dive spots.
Guillaume Néry: Between Sea and Mountains
While all of this is going on, young Guillaume Néry is growing up a happy and extremely athletic kid. He may have been born in Nice with the Mediterranean Sea at his feet but his back is turned in the other direction … he is much more likely found out and about in the mountains, on long hikes and challenging bike tours. Much like any kid, he loves devouring books about adventurers and explorers. Tintin, the French comic book hero, inspires his desire to travel. Nothing indicates that one day he would become one of the world’s most admired and respected freedivers, holder of multiple world records, and underwater filmmaker of renown.
But that would change in 1996, when Guillaume is just 14 years old. Nice hosts the first AIDA World Championship under the patronage of diver ace Claude Chapuis. Among the 35 participants, also Umberto Pelizzari, considered the Alltime Greatest in his discipline.
Nicknamed “Dolphin Man” for the particular grace and elegance he brings to the sport, the Italian captures young Guillaume’s full attention. And more than that. Umberto inspires him to try out diving for himself. It won’t take long until the young man discovers that his body is perfectly adapted to the underwater world. He can hold his breath longer and longer, dive deeper and deeper. With record divers Claude Chapuis and Loïc Leferme as his mentors, it would only take a few years of perfecting his skills and bodily capabilities until in 2002, at just 20 years old, he would become the youngest world record holder ever at a depth of -87 metres… an accomplishment which he would continually push and overcome as the years went by, until finally setting the constant weight mark at -126 metres in 2015.
But while he is passionate about the sport, he knows that diving alone, or even sponsored professional competition, won’t finance a livelihood. He therefore channels his passion into a more structured approach, studying sports science with a goal to do a PhD in physiology.
Julie Gautier: Between Sea Hunting and Dance
9,000 kilometres away, on the French territorial island of La Réunion, a young girl is growing up in the 1980s and 90s. It is a paradisiacal island, full of unspoiled tropical forests and animals, and surrounded by the Indian Ocean, the colour of emerald blue. Julie Gautier’s French father is a sea hunter, her Vietnamese mother a dancer, and both instill their talents and passions in their daughter in equal measure.
The only problem that Julie encounters in her blissful early life is the question what path to pursue later on, being attracted to both worlds. “I love to dance,” she says, “but when I get into the water, something happens in me, it’s my natural element.” She also has a passion for travel and new cultures. So she opts to participate in competition free diving, for which she has shown remarkable aptitude ever since age 11. Soon, she is considered somewhat of a phenomenon, being one of the most successful women divers in the world. Able to hold her breath for up to ten minutes, she sets several French records for women, going down to -68 metres.
Little does she know that the road before her will be a circular one…
Two Life Paths Converge
In 2000, the free diving world championship is held in Nice, and it is the first one that Julie participates in. On one of her dives, she experiences a “samba” – a loss of control of motor skills due to oxygen deprivation – and tumbles into the arms of a guy on the security team who pulls her to safety. His name: Guillaume Néry. And even though they hit it off, she is spoken for at that time. But Fate has its own way of making things happen that are supposed to happen. They stay in contact, but it won’t be until 2006, when they are both single, that she finds herself in his arms again, and on this occasion it is not a dive accident that brings them closer. The couple makes Nice its home base from where it travels the world, itinerating from one competition to the next.
But challenges are not short in coming. In 2007, Guillaume is unexpectedly faced with the loss of his friend and mentor Loïc Leferme. The charismatic freedive champion with the rockstar allure (-171 m) dies during a private training session in Villefranche-sur-Mer when his equipment fails and he does not reach the surface in time.
While Guillaume’s career is picking up speed, and he is chasing record after record and accomplishment after accomplishment, Julie is still exploring her calling in life. She struggles with her life as a competition freediver, which she really does not enjoy, but alternative solutions elude her. She yearns for her other old passion, dance, but she feels she is not good enough. At least not on land. She has even done underwater modeling. But she isn’t “there” yet, and over the next couple of years, she tries to figure out where to fit in, and how.
And then, in 2010, all the puzzle pieces start falling into place.
From the Bahamas to the Cenotes
Guillaume has a project in mind: walk under water along the rim of the submerged crevice known as Dean’s Blue Hole. And then jump off into the crevice’s wide open jaws, bottoming out at 202 metres.
“A journey between two breaths,” as Guillaume thinks of it. He puts a camera into Julie’s hand, telling her to film the adventure, which he would call Free Fall. She is baffled. She has never done anything like that before, and she is not sure she is up to the task. But she gives it a try anyway… and it turns out she is a natural, not only at shooting the video but also at directing and post production. The result, watched by almost 30 million viewers so far, is more than stunning:
The next few years see her developing her skills as a videographer and director as she and Guillaume continue to collaborate on other underwater film productions. The projects become more and more sophisticated, and attain millions of viewers. Narcose, based on Guillaum’s personal experience and diving-induced hallucinations, examines the feeling of euphoria and levity known as the “raptures of the deep”. Ocean Gravity deals with the state of weightlessness under water where just like in space, there is no upside and bottom anymore, where the ocean becomes a cosmos, man a satellite, and the bottom of the sea an unknown planet. In 2014, Guillaume is one of three exceptional athletes featured in the 90-minute documentary Attention: A Life in Extremes.
And the video for the 2015 hit single ‘Running‘ by Naughty Boy featuring Beyoncé and Arrow Benjamin has garnered almost 300 million hits so far.
In between all these projects, the couple had also welcomed daughter Maï-Lou to their family.
Life seems to go swimmingly… but then, out of the blue, another major life event happens.
In September 2015, Guillaume breaks his personal record and easily achieves the second deepest dive in history with -126 metres, just two metres shy of the world record. Two days later he decides to go for the title. But the dive line, supposed to be 129 metres long, is actually ten metres longer, and Guillaume accidentally dives down to 139 metres. Upon return to the surface, he blacks out and suffers a lung barotrauma. The record is therefore struck. Feeling fortunate that a potentially fatal incident resulted in only minor lung damage, Guillaume decides to retire from competition. If up to that point, freediving had been a way of life for him, “an exploration of the depths, of the unknown and of human limits, an inner journey of personal and collective adventure, and not the mere search for performance”, he now fully dedicates to his cinematic passion, still and always in tandem with his wife.
And gradually, things come into focus for Julie, too. She, who loves dance as much as she loves being underwater, begins to think about ways to integrate the two. In 2017, she takes her first steps toward the realization of this dream, quite literally. While filming Y40, Guillaume’s stunning one breath dive to the bottom of the world’s deepest pool (40+ metres), an idea hits her. “If you can walk underwater, you can dance underwater.”
The Circle Closes
It is thus that in early 2018, Julie embarks on a purely personal film project. Ama is dedicated to her friend, dance teacher and choreographer Ophémie Longuet, but more generally, it is a celebration of women’s strength. In this short film, she herself performs a poetic underwater dance. She tells her own personal story of pain, suffering, and loss – and overcoming dark hours. “I put my own greatest pain that I experienced in this film. To soften the harshness, I enveloped it in grace. To make it lighter, I made it float in water,” she reflects on her work. Almost 7 minutes long, the video is shot in one single take, and not once does Julie surface to catch her breath. And ever since its première in March 2018, Ama has been screened in front of millions of viewers online and in locations from France to Polynesia, from Hawaïi to Thailand, China, Russia, and other countries.
Around the same time, Julie is an invited artists of the Marriott StoryBooked project, a documentary series following creatives and artists on their personal journeys around the world. She can pick a destination of her choice and decides on the Mexican cenotes, the famous sinkholes of the Yucatan peninsula. Diving there is a transformational experience. The feature’s title “Finding The Soul of Dance in Mexico’s Cenotes” says it all. This is where she meets her inner movement, where she finally breaks through the glass ceiling between sports and dance. After a long struggle to balance her seemingly conflicting passions, she has truly come into her own – an underwater artist who uses her skills and creativity to capture the magic of the world below the surface as an author, film director, director of photography, and underwater dancer.
The Force from Within
It is said that freediving is all about finding the force and the silence within to overcome the resistance that the water and your own body inflict on you. This is not so different from life when naysayers and doubting Thomases along the way find it hard to concede that such incredible performances can be humanly possible, or should qualify as art. But Julie and Guillaume are living proof how a multitude of outside-the-box interests and talents can be channeled into something meaningful that connects with everyone in this world. There are also critics who fear that freediving could impact the fragile maritime flora and fauna. For them Guillaume has an answer, too: “Freediving is actually closely linked to ocean preservation. A freediver interacts with the marine life in the ocean, careful not to disturb nature. We cannot develop the sport without taking care of underwater preservation, too.”
Today, the couple has found international recognition both as athletes, artists, and filmmakers, and continues to collaborate under their own label Les Films Engloutis. They are also sought-after inspirational speakers and brand ambassadors. The future looks bright and holds exciting adventures around every corner and under every wave. They are underwater storytellers. But they are also the object of stories about them. Earlier in 2018, they were invited to dance with the sharks in the Parisian Aquarium. Soon thereafter a Deutsche Welle Making Of reportage accompanied Julie in her preparation for her newest project, scheduled to appear in 2019, about Russian champion freediver Natalia Vadimovna Molchanova who mysteriously disappeared during a private dive lesson near Ibiza in 2015.
They may be citizens of the world, these two globetrotting, multilingual, dynamic and free-spirited young people, but home – the place where the heart is – is still Nice, in a quiet residential corner up on a hill and miles from the water…. the perfect counterbalance to a hectic life on the road. In the romantic wilderness of their natural garden, they can recupe, play, dream up new projects, and just be a young family. But they never stay long before new adventures beckon again…
Find out more about the artists:
All photos by Guillaume Néry and Julie Gautier except photo of Loïc Leferme via Wikicommons, and photo of sunset by Natja Igney