The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

I have a strong love for Wes Anderson’s films as they have an odd, quirky feel to each of them. He has a knack for making some of the most mundane aspects of life seem fun and nostalgic; like your first love or a job at a hotel. As with all his films, you’ll find some familiar faces and this one is no different but now one of his best second-hand men, Bill Murray, takes centre stage in a faux documentary comedy; The Life Aquatic (With Steve Zissou).

The Life Aquatic is mainly about a washed up film-maker/explorer working on a project that began when his best friend and work colleague was killed. According to Zissou, he was killed by a Jaguar Shark; a mysterious, elusive and possibly non-existent creature. As he begins to hunt the shark his life starts to take a strange turn as he finds (and hires) his possible son; loses his wife and has a pregnant journalist write about the whole thing.

The whole idea that Zissou is washed up plays well with some of the maybes the film brings up. We don’t really get to know much about Zissou and the film makes sure that we only get to know the more important points. At the start of the film, we quickly understand that Zissou is not the most trusted of people due to the fact that everyone questions what really happened to Zissou’s friend. When we see the moment when his friend is killed; we only get to see Zissou say it. We never see the death at all. Much like the cinema goers, we question whether or not Zissou actually killed his friend to make his film more exciting. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think that he would do anything to be a success since his producer says that they are a dying breed. It’s through this and the overall untrustworthiness that Zissou has that we see that he is at the lowest point in his life and that he would like to be seen as a hero since he tries to manipulate the journalist into writing a puff piece about him.

What I think that the Life Aquatic does really well is how knowing it is. Not in the fourth wall breaking way but more in the absurdity of the medium; while it can be argued that Wes Anderson does this in most of his films I think that it’s most noticeable here. To begin with; this film is timeless or not really set in any particular era. This negates the need to be seen as modern as possible in look or sound. We see trappings of the sixties through the film posters and the company symbol that Zissou uses although we could say that the film takes place in the seventies through the soundtrack; which for the most part contains a lot of David Bowie performed in Portuguese by Seu Jorge. It’s through this that the film has a nostalgic vibe. You feel comfortable,  a sense that this is the past but you don’t know when. However; this does not hold too well mainly due to Wes’s later work, for example, The Grand Budapest Hotel, feeling more like films that you may have watched on a rainy day on daytime television.

Whilst the nostalgic vibe fades quickly; there are other parts to this film that make you appreciate the effort that went into making it. We’ll start with the most noticeable; this film makes use of stop-motion animation to show off the aquatic animals. While Wes would later direct some stop-motion films (Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs); you can tell he has a lot of love for the art form. The creatures are intentionally not fluid in movement and seem oddly out of sync with the film; it shows off how well these models are at articulation and human the animation can be. Having famed animation director Henry Selick (Nightmare before Christmas & Coraline) produce these creatures give the film an almost children’s storybook look. The animals are vivid and bright so they almost pop off the screen when they are on; they are designed to look as if a child has drawn them then they were placed in the film. The colours also play well alongside the overall pastel pallet of the film. Due to the work of cinematographer Robert Yeoman (a Wes Anderson regular) a lot of the shots I would say could be reproduced as watercolour paintings without losing much of the charm; the film is easy on the eyes and isn’t too harsh with the colours although this does get deliberately dropped during one sequence as the pallet goes to a very cold blue.

Besides the cinematography and the animation what really sticks out is the set, or to be a tad more accurate the use of sets. This may seem silly to think but you get the impression that Wes wanted the audience to say how fake some of the sets looked. Whilst most of the film is on a boat or on location there are some parts where a set/soundstage was obviously used; like the underwater sequences. While that makes sense you can see that Wes was pushing it with the ship cut out. In the whole film its only shown twice but you get an idea of how theatrical this set in particular is; at one point an entire argument is shown through this set before, jarringly, cutting back to the actual ship. This allows the argument to flow very quickly and has the visual gag that the cut out is meant to be a miniature of sorts.

With the performances for a few of the cast members, it would be easy to write them off since they have been in multiple Wes Anderson films. A complaint that seems to follow Anderson is that a lot of his characters appear to repeat in his films; like Jeff Goldblum playing a questionably meek person or Anjelica Huston playing the head matriarch of a household. I don’t mind this for the most part since Wes writes these characters well and often gives them some of the best lines. However, there are two performances that hold this film together. Firstly, there is Owen Wilson. He plays Ned; a pilot from Kentucky who views Zissou as a hero and may possibly be his son. Wilson’s performance is light and has an air of innocence to it. This is informed through his interactions with Zissou. He is a fan and he is working with his hero, at the same time he wants a father figure which he sees in Zissou. I like this performance since he seems like a person that you could have a pleasant conversation with. Wilson doesn’t play it too harshly unless it is needed and almost seems ocean-like as Wilson allows Ned’s story to flow quite effortlessly without distracting from the other performances.

Secondly, and most importantly, there’s Bill Murray. Zissou is quite startling in how minuscule he is. I would argue that this performance in The Life Aquatic is a masterclass in minimalism; Murray shows how well he can get a character across through little movements. We see a lot of Zissou’s thoughts through the glances and looks at the camera; we get to understand that Zissou is tired and wants to capture his heyday after his colleague was killed. Despite the fact that this is a comedy; Murray acts as if the whole film is a serious drama, I love that. Murray gives the performance a sort of weight to it since he doesn’t need to be bullish or brass. You can tell that Zissou is a few steps from breaking down uncontrollably and that he is manipulative and almost always blames himself for the position he is in. We want to know more about Zissou and Murray’s performance gives us small windows as to who he is; like I said this is a masterclass in minimalism. The film highlights the relationship Murray has with Anderson; it sort of has echoes of a bond that Ken Russell had with Oliver Reed. Anderson trusts Murray to deliver what he needs which in turn makes this particular performance look effortless since Murray has worked alongside Anderson for quite a few years.

I’m struggling to find a major fault with Life Aquatic but that may be due to how much I like Anderson’s work. I would say that if your not too keen on Anderson’s films then this may not change your mind but if you can get past that then you will find a wonderfully told story with a fine ensemble. An immense amount of effort was imparted in The Life Aquatic, with this the film ultimately feels like a living watercolour painting.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU IS OUT NOW ON THE CRITERION COLLECTION

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