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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou


‘…the potential for visual tweeness is sometimes at odds with Anderson’s willingness to confront the darker side of life, but The Life Aquatic manages to provide both sides of the coin…’

With Asteroid City cleaning up nicely over the weekend at the US box office, let’s take a look back at a time when Wes Anderson was a little less evasive about finding meaning. Anderson’s films have often been divisive; his studied quirkiness can come off as annoying or smug, and the potential for visual tweeness is sometimes at odds with Anderson’s willingness to confront the darker side of life, but The Life Aquatic manages to provide both sides of the coin, even if it didn’t connect at the time.

Starting out as a cheerful homage to the underwater adventure of Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic ducks and dodges down a number of surprising side-lines, and mixes bright character comedy with dark shafts of poetic realism. Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, a bobble-hat sporting oceanographer who is searching for the shark that killed his friend. His crew, including Ned (Owen Wilson) and Klaus (Willem Dafoe) have anxieties about Steve’s mission, and when the adventure leads to mutiny and an encounter with pirates, Steve’s ability to hold his crew together proves crucial.

The colourful depiction of on-board life allows Anderson to showcase his gift for comedy, while a selection of David Bowie songs performed by Seu Jorge add to the whimsical charm. But The Life Aquatic builds to stark tragedy that I’ll keep under wraps for the sake of spoilers; the bitter-sweet comedy of Steve Zissou’s life is encapsulated in an early scene in which he carries a fish in a transparent plastic bag through the packed streets. Caught in a bubble of visibility, he wrestles with his own inner demons in a public way, and earns the respect of his brothers for the way he internalised the cruelty of nature and learns to find his own personal accommodation with death.

A little knowledge of Cousteau’s own life is the key to Anderson’s darkly comic film; it’s easy to see what the film-makers might find to admire. Anderson’s flights of fancy have become more complex and elliptical since 2004, but there’s something to be said for his directness here. Fans of his newer work shouldn’t worry, the style is already firmly in place. I visited the set in Rome during filming, and was wowed by the cross-section dioramas which had been created for the film, like miniature dolls houses in which the characters could be transposed. Anderson has been constructing such arcane tableau for a couple of decades now, and like it or not, he’s created his own little unique world much like that of Steve Zissou and other explorers of the bizarre.


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  1. Tried to watch this a few times but could never get into it. Maybe I’ll have to give it another go.

    • What seemed twee at the time feels more direct now. I do find it strange that Asteroid City and French Dispatch got far more love than this, which is a much more emotional film.

  2. Right side of whimsy. This worked more than it annoyed. But you can be in no doubt anderson is original although I always visualise Gene Hackman in the leading role.

  3. I vaguely remember when this came out but nothing about it really drew me once it was released on dvd.
    Of course, if Murray dresses up as a pirate and says lines like “Arggg matey” I might be tempted to give it a chance just for that.

  4. Always heard this was a bit of a dud, and since I wasn’t crazy about Anderson’s more popular movies I never sought it out.

    Pics of your trip to Rome?

    Anderson has constructing

    • Sigh. I’ll see if I had some pics of Cinecitta.

      This is a much better film that Anderson’s recent stuff. Bit Asteroid City is way way more popular.

      Thanks for typos. Was in Indiana Jones 5

      • Who did you play in Indiana Jones 5?

        I look forward to your Cinecitta pics. I’ll see if I can find any of me and Anita frolicking in the Trevi Fountain. If I remember correctly the paparazzi were out in force that night.

        • I have seen these pics, she looks great but it appears you have been digitally removed.

          I play the disappointed old man sitting in the cinema. But hey, it’s better than the last travesty…

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