‘The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou’
The Criterion Collection
A decade ago “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” was Wes Anderson’s first boondoggle — a costly Christmas Day release that turned out to be his most dense and inaccessible film to date. Such films don’t offer instant gratification but require time to sit. Indeed upon deeper reflection and repeat viewings, it can be read as if not his most enjoyable film — that would be his most recent, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — then possibly his most thoughtful and devastating. It sneaks up on you, even if it’s after it’s ended.
Bill Murray had played quiet depressives in “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” As Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-style populist marine biologist, he’s more animated. He’s still depressed: His best friend (Seymour Cassel) has been eaten by a “jaguar shark,” and he’s also being eaten away by fears of obsolescence. His best days, he fears, are behind him, and he may be too much of a crank to worm his way back into the limelight.
This, as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz notes in his probing Anderson study, “The Wes Anderson Collection,” is a young filmmaker imagining a grim fate for himself at an older age. Zissou too is a filmmaker, and one who has carefully constructed a self-image. In fact, throughout the film Anderson plays with manufactured worlds (obvious sets, matching costumes, invented aquatic lifeforms) running against harsh or at least bland reality. The film has pirates and grand ocean voyages, but the pirates are the real, non-romanticized kind and the funds to sail (or to make a film) are always on the verge of running out. It’s telling Anderson’s costliest film is constantly worried about money.
Anderson is often criticized for disappearing into his own worlds. But his films are about exploring the idea of how we create realities for ourselves to stave off the pain that life regularly and indifferently dolls out. “The Life Aquatic” is just the one that puts this front and center. And it has lots of David Bowie music — why did the critics of 2004 complain again?
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