"Dictated but Not Read": Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
“I thought aspects of it seemed slightly fake.”
That line is spoken by reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) about a quarter of the way through indie auteur Wes Anderson’s fourth feature, and it cuts right to the heart of the film. In many ways, this film is Anderson taking the criticism that the twee and offbeat aesthetic he’s known for is forced or phony and addressing it head on. To that point, the film opens on the premiere of the new nature documentary from Bill Murray’s pseudo-Cousteau oceanographer Steve Zissou - at a European film festival one would expect to see an Anderson film premiere. In “The Life Aquatic - Part 1”, Zissou’s longtime partner Esteban (Seymour Cassel) is eaten by a mysterious creature referred to as a “jaguar shark”. When asked in a Q & A after the premiere what scientific purpose killing such a rare animal would serve, Zissou answers in typical Anderson fashion with a pause and one word, “revenge”.
Zissou is shown to be an all but intolerable human being from the beginning. He’s rude, more than a bit misogynistic, and completely self-obsessed. The death of his partner has only made those behaviors, and others, worse. Things begin to change, though, when Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) shows up believing that Zissou is his father. Zissou is consumed with a desire to be loved and admired by all. So the fact that he may have a son, excites him as much as it terrifies him. Murray has rarely been better than he is here as he fluctuates between arrogance and vulnerability with ease and grace.
The Life Aquatic is filled with nods, both subtle and less so, to the filmmaking process in general and to Anderson’s process specifically. Mostly that comes in the form of the fact that the crew is making a film. While they are making a documentary, Zissou is constantly manipulating the footage and the events just as he tries to control the members of the crew. Ned is the audience’s way in to this quirky world and he also slowly chips away at his maybe father’s dickishness and makes way for genuine growth.
The supporting cast is filled with excellent actors (including many Anderson regulars) playing eccentric characters. Including Anjelica Houston as Zissou’s estranged wife Eleanor, a delightfully weird Willem Dafoe as Belafonte first mate Klaus, and Jeff Goldblum as Zissou’s much more successful rival Alistair Hennessey. The crew of the Belafonte operates like a dysfunctional family, making this film a bit like a heightened spiritual sequel to The Royal Tenenbaums. As it also deals with themes of legacy and forgiveness.
Another way Anderson reacted to the idea some have that his films have a sense of falseness to them, was to dive head first into the handmade vibe of his films and use stop motion animation (something he continues to this day) to bring the bizarre aquatic creatures to life. Juggernaut of that medium Henry Sellick, spearheaded the animation and his work, from a “crayon pony fish” to the aforementioned jaguar shark, is simply wonderful. Another technique that Anderson started utilizing in this film is the creation of a miniature version of the sets, allowing for incredibly creative shots.
I’d be remiss not to mention the exceptional soundscape of the film which is made up by Mark Mothersbaugh’s synthetic score and Seu Jorge’s magnificent Portuguese covers of David Bowie’s greatest hits. They both compliment the world and characters beautifully. The 35mm photography by Robert Yeoman is exceptional as always, it’s certainly his and Anderson’s best looking collaboration this side of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
While not quite as masterful as Anderson's finest works, The Life Aquatic is far from the disappointment many suggested at the time of its release. It's the sort of triumphantly optimistic tragicomedy only Anderson is capable of, and like its ornery protagonist it reveals a warm humanism through sheer force of will.