An octopus 'love story' on Netflix has caused thoughts to run wild. Why? | Elle Hunt

A new Netflix documentary about a filmmaker and his “octopus teacher” has become the subject of impish suggestion and scurrilous rumour on social media, speculating about whether their intimate relationship ever, ah … turned physical.

Let me be clear, as both a fully paid-up member of the cephalopod-squad and one of the first reviewers of the film: the man does not have sex with the octopus. (And, if Google search brought you here, a time-saving tip for the future: that won’t ever be published by the Guardian. It remains to be seen with Netflix.)

My Octopus Teacher tells the moving story of how Craig Foster, after vowing to free dive daily after burning out at work, came to know an octopus living in the kelp forests outside his home in Cape Town. Over a year of observation, the two grow comfortable in each other’s company (but not that comfortable), granting Foster an intimate (as in, close!) view of an alien life.

As nature documentaries go, My Octopus Teacher is strikingly heart-over-head – a decision that Foster might have come to regret since a Twitter thread about his “erotic relationship” with his subject went viral. Writer and self-described octopus theorist Sophie Lewis praised the film as “moving but flawed”, with particular regards to what she perceived as Foster’s “conspicuously queerphobic” repression about the nature of his attraction. A scene where the octopus fleetingly sits on Foster’s chest, Lewis describes as their having had “a form of sex”.

I may be taking Lewis’ point too literally (if so, so is much of the internet) – but if that is her measure, I’ve had sex with an octopus too. (To be clear: I have not.) Not even they would recognise this interaction as sex, with most reproducing at arms’ length, the male handing the female a packet of his sperm with his special sex arm. But though the love story may be all Foster, the film makes clear that they do have a relationship.

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Again, it is all strictly above-board – just a bit of hand-holding. But as the tentative tentacle stretches out to Foster like Adam to God, it does not seem anthropomorphic to say that his fascination is reciprocated. Anyone who has been lucky enough to interact with octopuses will confirm their curiosity and initiative, part of what makes them so rewarding to study. But from the filmmakers’ account of production, it seems as if they struggled with how to frame such an unusual story. They eventually opted for “the most emotive” way possible, concluding that pushing too hard on the larger theme of “deep nature connection … could make viewers uncomfortable”. Oh, the irony.

Most people whose brains have not been broken by the internet have hailed My Octopus Teacher as deeply moving, with The Cut dubbing it “the love story we need right now” (and me, a killjoy for desiring more science – though I note that more science generally guards against any suggestion you had sex with your subject).

At the very least, Foster’s evident feeling speaks to the transformative power of engaging with the natural world, which he is now working to protect through The Sea Change Project nonprofit – an example that more of us could stand to learn from. But if a documentary’s success is measured by how well it represents its subject, I’d say My Octopus Teacher falls short.

Humans have basically zero in common with octopuses. We share a camera eye with a retina, but oddly, we gained it entirely independently of each other. Our evolutionary paths diverged nearly twice as long ago as human’s did with any other vertebrate. It is often said that they are the closest analogues we have to alien life on Earth, and even scientists largely agree.

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But whether it is in service of a narrative arc (perhaps at Netflix’s explicit behest), or doing justice to his experience, Foster strains to establish common ground with the octopus – to the extent that, when her leg is bitten off by a shark, he suggests their lives are “mirroring each other”. Her leg, to be clear, grows back. I have a long history of publicly over-identifying with cephalopods, but even I admit to thinking, at that point: is there anything we won’t centre ourselves in?

Where I agree with Lewis’ critique (expanded, now, on Patreon) is on the film’s “scientific-masculinity”: the octopus is of interest because Foster finds her so, and especially where it applies to him. In fact it was watching My Octopus Teacher that I finally understood what film critics meant by a “scene-stealer”. The footage of the octopus at work and play – hunting crabs, shape-shifting into seaweed, giving sharks the slip – is deeply absorbing: I would have happily watched hours of it without narration (and indeed occasionally do, on YouTube, with a glass of wine). As it is, I was reminded of Andy Samberg’s critique of the male characters in Portrait of a Lady on Fire: “What’s he doing here?”

The intensity of Foster’s feeling for his subject rather dims her light. If My Octopus Teacher is a love story, as described, it is less Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and more Garden State – which is to say, conspicuously sexless, as is good and right. The clue is in the title: kooky girl breathes new life into a broken man, teaching him how to feel, changing his whole outlook on the world. She’s not a sex object, she’s a saviour: a Manic Pixie Dream Mollusc.

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