The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

steve zissou film review

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) Directed by Wes Anderson

A maritime fable about the sardonic and mercurial oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) who embarks with his adventurous crew to hunt down a chimerical jaguar shark, the same one that devoured his colleague and best friend, Esteban. This is the first Wes Anderson film in which he does not co-write the screenplay with his frequent collaborator and college buddy, Owen Wilson. This time he co-writes the script with Noah Baumbach. The absence of Wilson in the creative concordance that had been established in the works prior to this one, this literary divorce is woefully felt, making this – unfairly in my estimation – Wes Anderson’s least beloved film by his most devoted audiences. Nevertheless, the virtuosity here is persistent, invariably idiosyncratic and incisively ambitious, concentrating evolutionary qualities; premature properties that foretell the maturity of his subsequent films and the blossoming of a new stage in Anderson’s consistently eccentric oeuvre. The primary contrast that can be paralleled and stylistically differentiated with his first three features is that of a conspicuous physicality of sound stages as plastic as they are architecturally theatrical. While the artificial philosophy of Wes Anderson’s picturesque landscapes has since its conception overtly left in visible state the preeminence of structures – physical and metaphysical – exceedingly contrived, here the little relationship that existed between the textures of reality with those of a synthetic and chromatic fiction are completely obliterated, leaving only the idyllic plasticity of an eternal fiction.

Conceptually, this absurdly melancholic and thoroughly humorous story delves into the more teleological facets of Wes Anderson’s mythology. This is indeed the film that best conceptualizes Anderson’s aims or rather the ultimate purpose of Anderson as a quirky auteur lost in the conventionality of American cinema. There is one conversational sequence in particular that gathers both self-critical issues and generalized criticisms, these seem directed at Anderson himself as well as his detractors – and well, the Hollywood industry for that matter. Bill Murray plays with inquisitive cynicism Steve Zissou, who, during his madcap excursion in search of the ineffable jaguar shark, is interviewed by the witty reporter Jane (Cate Blanchett). She judiciously asks questions to the biased oceanographer, who has lately been pilloried for the cheap sensationalism and faux sentimentality of his documentaries, she believes his work feels too contrived. These statements during the dialectic interview provoke vexation and anger in the famous oceanographer. This symmetrical verbal confrontation between interviewer and interviewee, sums up probably the most self-critical moment in Anderson’s career. The tiresome and perfunctory thesis of most of Wes Anderson’s naysayers is that his work is too artifactual, making it impossible to establish tangible, emotional connections with his distinctive environments. If in Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) the arty exaltation was pervasive, here it is a thousand times more pervasive. It is a deliberate provocation. In effect, if his detractors complain about the artificial factor then it is only logical that Anderson would choose to break his own boundaries and craft something even more over-the-top, in terms of protruding artificiality. Personally, I consider the artificiality factor of his films essential to the storytelling poetics.

Admittedly, the formalism may err on the side of coldness, yet I see no other way in which such wacky and vibrant visions could be realized were it not for the aesthetic vitality of those formalities. As in all of Anderson’s outlandish films, this aquatic escapade sympathizes with characters so extraordinary that the world as we know it is perceived differently by them. It is a graceful manner of allegorizing the outcast figure trying to fit into a society antithetical to his principles. Consequently, the metaphor expands to the smallest particles that make up the celluloid in which the eccentric filmmaker’s bizarrely symmetrical vision is imbued. Like his most cherished characters, Anderson does not belong to the average conventionality of his native country’s cinema. The overpowering charm of this story – though this is also its greatest flaw – is the convoluted employment of subplots that coexist in the same space-time. While the nucleus of the narration is the search for the jaguar shark and its demystification, the story intertwines these professional ambitions with personal ones. Owen Wilson plays Ned Plimpton, son of Steve Zissou’s ex-partner, who believes in the possibility that Steve is his biological father. Steve as well as Ned have doubts but emotions push them to establish a filial paternal relationship. Simply put, the adventure in the mythical style of the novel Moby Dick analogously portrays the search of a son for his father and vice versa. Clearly, it is an adventure of self-discovery. Part of the pleasure of watching this dynamic is in its narrative rebelliousness, a quasi-parody of La Nouvelle Vague cinema; unmistakably, the European manifestation in every flamboyant tonality is that of European art cinema, which I suspect Wes Anderson worships religiously. Everything is visually beautiful in this film; the soundstage shooting ends up being functional to Anderson’s goals to frame his dogmatic symmetry in one of the most outlandish stories ever filmed. Robert Yeoman, Wes Anderson’s favorite cinematographer, achieves compositional miracles here, along with the spectacular and lovely stop motion animation of the great Henry Selick, they ornament Anderson’s environmental oddities like an exotic utopia.

It’s the kind of movie where comedy and drama are integrated even on material levels such as the pompous scenery. The existential wistfulness of the plot never overshadows the hilarity of the performances and the out-of-control situations, there is an elegiac romance in each character that compels us to interpret the film in a poetic rather than prosaic tone. This has to be Anderson’s first feature film that comes closer to being a semi-tragedy, and I say “semi-” because to me this American director’s fables are anti-tragedies. Tragedy has its own ethic, in which grief is inevitable but so is catharsis. But Anderson’s humanism eschews depressive mawkishness; he does not refuse tragedy here per se, but he does refuse to imbue it with pessimism. When tragedy occurs in the plot here, the optimistic spirit quickly engulfs the realism of the event, returning again to the pleasing artificiality of a joyful world of possibilities. That’s what I admire most about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, it is powerfully compassionate to its characters. Some will misconstrue that idiosyncratic beauty for kitsch, others will grasp it in all its splendor.


Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching films, I'm writing about them.
Editor and Official Film Critic at Celluloid Dimension

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