He doesn’t know diddly-jack about what we’re doing.
— Klaus (Willem Dafoe), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson: Afterwards, I did a… “Did you just point a gun at the pregnant reporter?” Nice touch.
Noah Baumbach: It was such a nice touch that I think we felt we wrote it.
— Commentary, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: Criterion Collection
“That’s what the movie’s sort of about,” observes Wes Anderson of his The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, “self-invention, and making their own art, and all those things.” At the same time, he says, “Most of our time is spent in ‘How do we bring our characters to life?’ That’s what we’re inspired by and that’s what we spend all our time with as writers. And then as a director, working with actors, and the cinematographer, production designer: ‘How can we bring them to life and have a feel for them in an environment that is so strange and unreal?'”
The environment in Life Aquatic is exceeding strange, created with animation in tentative relation to Anderson’s increasingly familiar “quirky” characters. At the center is titular Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who opens the film by presenting for a well-heeled, restless audience his self-fictionalizing oceanographic documentary project, called The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Number 12: The Jaguar Shark, Part One. The film follows a Jacques Cousteau-like formula, as Zissou stands before a chart to indicate the coming voyage, introduces each red-wool-capped member of Team Zissou by age, personality traits, and nationality, and then explains each step of the adventure as it happens.
This includes the demise of 52-year-old Steve’s best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassell), who is “chewed!” by a jaguar shark, so named by Steve, who witnesses the event and then reports it, stricken. “He’s got hydrogen psychosis!” yelps Steve’s pathologically eager-to-please first mate Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), “The crazy eye!” And with this trauma, Part One ends.
The red stage curtains close and the viewers within the film shift awkwardly in their royal red chairs as Steve sits on stage, waiting for questions. His plans for Part Two, he asserts, include tracking down that monster creature and killing it. No matter that it might be a previously undiscovered genus, or that the audience thinks he’s nutty, his mission is unfunded (this according to a newsflash from financier Drakoulias [Michael Gambon]), or even his crew is skeptical. Steve, anachronistic and literally ungrounded, means to do the manly thing, even if he’s unsure what that means. He is the show.
One might make a similar observation regarding Bill Murray, the famously eccentric, brilliant, and intimidating performer who has found such remarkable vehicles for his particular talents of late. As Anderson puts it, “There are two parts of working with Bill. He’s easy for me to communicate with. He’s quick to grasp his own interpretation that gets at what I’m hoping for, what I might not be able to describe in words that made any sense, he can somehow make sense of. There’s another part of which is this sort of wildness that he brings to the set. Because he’s somebody who can walk into a room and immediately command it.”
You can see this set of qualities — the related tensions and the delights — at worth throughout Anderson’s film. And while his commentary with Baumbach isn’t always dazzling (“Everything Zissou has is old and dated and doesn’t work properly and Hennessey’s [Jeff Goldblum] stuff is computerized, flat screen,” that is, he’s stating the obvious), one point that they make repeatedly and usefully is the film’s interest in the blurry distinctions between artifice and reality. (As the camera travels through and across walls on Zissou’s ship, Baumbach notes, “That’s really acknowledging that we’re on a set”).
As the film confuses lines between surfaces and depths, it asks how such lines might signify, for whom and to whose benefit? The show creates perpetual expectations and obligations, regrets and hopes, for artists as well as audiences. Both The Life Aquatics — Anderson’s film and Steve’s filmed life — expose seams and efforts to make sense of experience. And both appreciate the artifice that makes real life so entertaining. In this, Life Aquatic rehearses some of Anderson’s favorite themes, also treated in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, even Bottle Rocket. Yet again, the artist who’s not quite sure of his art finds himself in a father-son entanglement. And again, desire and deferral slide into one another, never quite fulfilled or altered.
Here, the father-son connection might not be “real,” in the standard, biologically determined sense: Kentucky Air copilot Ned (Owen Wilson), in uniform on his night off, approaches Steve on premiere night, just as the star adventurer is feeling close to retirement and disappointment, claiming to be a long-lost son, the result of a fleeting and not quite forgotten liaison years back. Steve starts introducing the kid around as “probably my son,” and invites him to come along for the Belafonte’s last cruise.
This doesn’t sit well with Mrs. Zissou, the billionaire chain-smoker Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who wonders why he “believes” in this boy: “Because he looks up to me,” admits Steve, and even as his guard seems down, his performance is predictable. He’s sad, he’s lonely, he’s looking for legacy or at least a connection that’s not only about money (his wife is not only the “brains” behind Team Zissou, she’s also the backup funding source). And yet his relationships are all about him, unavoidably: Steve will end up using Ned’s money, an inheritance from his recently dead mother, to finance the trip. Steve worries that she’s interested again in her ex, the wealthy, smooth-talking, and “part-gay” Hennessey. (Anderson compliments Baumbach on his “best line,” uttered by Zissou, who responds to Hennessey’s self-identification by noting that some folks think we all are.)
Klaus, for his part, is jealous of Ned, and acts out Steve’s anxiety for him: he and Ned literally slap each other, encounters that would seem slapsticky if they weren’t so accusatory and their faces weren’t so pained. In between the boys steps five-months pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett). Jane ignites all kinds of competition among the boys, in particular the father-sonnish duo. When she probes Steve’s fading relevance and tendency to exaggerate, he snaps back at her in return, finding fault with her and pulling his gun on her: “I think you’re a fake, I think you’re a phony, and I think you’re a bad reporter.” Almost immediately, he wants to take it all back, because he wants her to do the cover story on him, he wants to be loved. Maybe. “I was only trying to defend myself,” he snuffles.
All this aboard the ship, revealed in antic breakaway by the camera, like a dollhouse that features a different, carefully contrived scene in each room: the lab, the library, the editing room. And in this small space, amid the fractiousness, come moments of gentle beauty out of place: the ship’s safety expert Pelé (Seu Jorge) sings Bowie songs in Portuguese, so they are at once strange and familiar, like everything else. Indeed, the songs are of a piece with the animated fish (courtesy of Henry Selick) that infect the film with a dulcet childishness, both delicately wondrous and artificial.
This mixed affect is perpetuated in Criterion’s delightful design and raft of extras, including 10 very brief deleted scenes, 10 performances by Seu Jorge, documentaries called “Starz on the Set,” “Creating a Scene,” and “An Intern’s Journal” (by Anderson’s real intern, who plays Steve’s intern), featurettes on specific characters (Ned, Jane, and Esteban), a piece on production designer Mark Friedberg’s work (“The Look Aquatic”), and “This Is An Adventure,” a 51-minute documentary directed by the great Albert Maysles, Antonio Ferrera, and Matthew Prinzing that details filming in Italy. Weird and sometimes touching, the film indicates that the atmosphere on set was not so different from the atmosphere on the Belafonte.
Perhaps the most galvanizing weirdness in the film is the violence that sustains collective energy and affection. When this erupts onto the film’s surface — as when a crew of Filipino pirates assault Team Zissou and kidnap Bill Ubell — the film breaks down into its component parts, just like the ship breaks down on screen into clever, flattened little sections, floors and rooms and portholes. Anderson mentions here, “My idea of what the pirates would look like is not reflected in the film… We hired them in Rome… and they brought themselves and the feeling on the set.”
In any case, the pirates are brutal, blindfolding the team members and holding knives against their necks. Steve fights back, turning into an oddly inappropriate action hero, charging along under Iggy Pop’s “Search & Destroy”: “I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm. / I’m a runaway son of the nuclear a-bomb. / I am a world’s forgotten boy. / The one who searches and destroys.” Throughout the resistance, the Anderson film reels as if hallucinating, as if this event doesn’t happen quite this way. Outright unreal, it may be as real as anything else in either film — the documentary so awkward and invented, the fiction so poignant and unhinged. Steve’s a hero, in his show.