THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. Wes Anderson ‘s maritime adventure
Christmas, Christmas, and… a new Wes Anderson film! Almost 20 years ago, American fans could have exclaimed this, as the still-developing filmmaker of The Grand Budapest Hotel introduced The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In that movie, Wes Anderson, right in the middle of winter, took the audience on a wild and exotic expedition led by the titular character.
Bill Murray, a long-time collaborator and close friend of the director of Isle of Dogs, who has been accompanying him since Rushmore (1998), plays the role of Steve Zissou. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the actor portrays a character who is extremely depressed and pessimistic about life. This is not surprising; his best friend and a key member of Team Zissou, Esteban du Plantier, was just eaten while shooting another documentary short film (a nod to the real-life documentary filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau), by an unknown creature dubbed the “jaguar shark.” During an especially awkward press conference at a fictional international film festival in Loquasto, the protagonist announces that the goal of his crew’s next expedition will be to kill, as an act of revenge, this mysterious sea creature.
In Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the central focus is on the character. Robert D. Yeoman‘s camera work (the cinematographer for all of Anderson’s feature films) consistently stays close to the protagonist, presenting us with secondary and episodic characters from his perspective, through his interactions with them. This way, we get to know the entire crew of the Belafonte, led by Captain-documentarian Klaus (brilliantly portrayed by Willem Dafoe), who sees him as a father/semi-deity figure, and the newest member of Team Zissou, who claims to be Steve’s biological son, Ned Plimpton (also brilliantly played by Owen Wilson).
Despite the colorful array of supporting characters (worth mentioning are those played by Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, and Anjelica Houston), at the center of the film, Steve Zissou remains, dealing with a crisis that manifests in various aspects of his life – creatively (his new film at the Loquasto festival is poorly received), in his personal life (the death of his closest friend, the arrival of Ned), and emotionally (the departure of his wife and the rivalry with his adopted son for the affections of a pregnant journalist). Steve, though initially appearing narcissistic, perpetually irritable, and gruff, turns out to be a man overwhelmed by his problems, a graying man for whom such an attitude towards the outside world is a kind of protective armor. The protagonist of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is one of the most interesting and complex characters to have appeared in Anderson’s films to date. I am convinced that much of this credit goes to Noah Baumbach, who not only played the episodic role of the butler Phillip but also collaborated with the creator of The Darjeeling Limited as a screenwriter.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is an incredibly interesting point in Anderson’s filmography for another reason – its form. A constantly evolving form that will ultimately reach its final, symmetrical peak in a few years, at the intersection of The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, we can still find handheld shots (such as the sequence of the pirate island attack), something that would be unthinkable in a film bearing Anderson’s name today. The CGI is also absolutely unique, playing a significant role in shaping the form of Anderson’s fourth feature film after Rushmore. The special effects that create the marine fauna and flora may initially seem kitschy and in poor taste (especially in hindsight), but they are so stylistically consistent and committed to their peculiar aesthetics that, in the end, it’s hard not to love them. It is precisely because of this aesthetic consistency that one of the final scenes, in which the famous “jaguar shark” is revealed to the eyes of the friends cramped in a small submersible, makes such a huge impression.
The director of Bottle Rocket has undergone an incredible artistic journey, starting in the mid-90s with an amateur short film about three friends. Today, he is one of the most recognizable auteurs in the world of cinema, someone whose new films are eagerly awaited by millions of fans (including the one writing these words). The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou may be a somewhat peripheral stop on Wes Anderson’s long artistic journey, but it’s still worth pausing there, meeting all those old acquaintances, and embarking on extraordinary maritime adventures with them. If you haven’t done so already, the soon 20th anniversary of its release, coupled with the lousy weather outside, makes for an excellent opportunity to catch up on this cinematic gem.