The high-tech and the primitive coexist in The Life Aquatic, much as they do in Keaton’s The Navigator, and as in all of Anderson’s films they combine with the deeply placid personalities to form their own brand of subversive storytelling.
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Both tragedy and comedy float into Wes Anderson’s films by way of extravagant circumstances treated as mundane. He shares that logic with Buster Keaton, whose comedy regards disaster without reacting to it, never flinching from a devastating calm. Anderson seems to wield Bill Murray as Keaton’s equivalent in sound. They have the same monolithic sadness that dismantles the world by reacting to it as honestly (though not as realistically) as possible. “It’s a documentary,” Zissou says as though he’s Anderson, “it’s all really happening.” His son replies, as though he’s us, “Damn you for that.”
Anderson has this decadent calm that twists the most normal situations into stifled laughter, worse the more normal they are. Zissou (Murray) is a wealthy oceanographer who seems to know nothing about the ocean. His ship is constructed like the catacombs of his head space, a gorgeous set layered like a doll’s house and viewed most effectively from the far outside, like the glass walls across the courtyard in Rear Window. Everything is important on the boat except the engines, left in disrepair while the kitchen and library and film-developing rooms and spas crackle with the latest (1950s) tech. And it could be a building instead of a boat – the sea is shockingly absent from The Life Aquatic, like the waves are cardboard on rods beneath the stage of a community theater. As the humor doesn’t wait for anyone to get the punchlines, Zissou doesn’t build his life for us from the foundation. We enter as he’s well into hating being fifty-two, grown up into a man he never intended to be. Murray gives him a tragic infinity, the same as if he was twenty-two, and he seems to know he’s in a movie.
This would be the case even if he wasn’t making a movie as he goes – The Life Aquatic contains documentary footage of the film Zissou’s friends damn him for making a reality. They film and develop it on-ship. The intra-movie is calm as a National Geographic special, and contains so little comedy at all that it’s the macro film’s funniest segment. Anderson seems to strive to make both a film and a movie, one we have to watch with two gazes. The Life Aquatic forces us to see the creation of a realistic fantasy (the documentary that never really happens) within a fantastical reality that has been pared down to dumbfounding educational bites. The characters seem to know they’re in a movie, but since they really are, it’s hard to fault them for taking advantage of conventions. Things seem to be resolved by the resolutions of movie logic, as much as by the logic of this one particularly. Klaus (Willem Dafoe, knobby knees glistening from his swimming shorts) sees Zissou as a kind of surrogate father and threatens Ned (Owen Wilson), who may actually be Zissou’s son, when he feels he’s been replaced. Ned replies with his own threat; they part with fake manly defiance. Later when Ned slaps Klaus, Dafoe doesn’t look scared or angry but genuinely distressed, as though he’s so at a loss that he’s verging on tears. “But you gave me a warning already,” he says, “you stood up for yourself.” He was acting tough because the film required him to, and Ned responded adequately for a movie character. Now dredging it back up seems unreasonable to him, as though it’s off script. Like everything in The Life Aquatic, real life is much more like a movie than the movie in it. Zissou summarizes his filming philosophy: “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Then we film it.”
This isn’t what Anderson does (the symbols and textures are too tightly woven), but there’s genius in how he makes it seem so. There is pain when Zissou sees his wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) with a sexy young therapist, or endures her apathy, but there is no “scene” of pain. We think confrontations in films should be resolved or logical – in The Life Aquatic their comic mundanity requires that they’re neither. Catching Ned sleeping with Jane (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant reporter with ulterior motives, Zissou seems put out by Ned’s disobedience more than his own failure as a romantic, which he takes as a given. Jane is hired for a puff piece but comes asking questions about Zissou’s whole emotional universe (about which he has no comment, of course). She’s there because she had a photo of him she used to hang over her bed for inspiration. “This one?” Zissou asks, posing as he might have in the photo. That’s the one: like finding out Captain Ahab is a pothead. A handful of actors could succeed in making Zissou the portrait of every misplaced heroic affection. Only Murray could make him lovable too.
There are no affectionate aspects of Murray’s portrayals, save those we put there ourselves. He seems like a father made weak by time, like someone else has been controlling his life (“I hate fathers,” he says, “and never wanted to be one”). You see the essential Zissou in that statement: a man who never wanted to hate himself. Nothing drove him to it, it seems, except being cast in life as a tragic clown instead of a romantic hero. He sees Jane, chirpy with sarcasm, in her first trimester as she tries not to swear for her baby but steals a drink occasionally, and he wants to kiss her. Someone said once of a man that if you look at the woman he sleeps with, you will know how he estimates himself. Zissou doesn’t sleep with anyone.
The high-tech and the primitive coexist in The Life Aquatic, much as they do in Keaton’s The Navigator, and as in all of Anderson’s films they combine with the deeply placid personalities to form their own brand of subversive storytelling. The physical sets help scale the walls of the universe down to people-size, and the music (an in-house guitarist singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese) is its own kind of maddening narration.
But the film is choppy to watch – it would be inadvisable if it wasn’t so deliciously off-putting. The composed score is often disharmonious in a way I can’t quite decipher, when action beats accompany Murray channeling Jack Bauer to take on the pirates that board his ship. The ending is desperately depressing for seeming so happy, as the cycle of non-heroism passes down to an unsuspecting generation, and all the nuances of manly depression and mid-life boredom creep up and form together a single hysteric mass in your mind. There seems to be no stroke of broad universality, as in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and in the end everything seems small and cloudy, as though sometimes Anderson finds himself filming with Zissou’s philosophy. The actors all have it down: the combination of Murray, Wilson, Blanchett, Dafoe, Michael Gambon, and Jeff Goldblum succeed in knowing Anderson’s craft, possibly better than he himself does in The Life Aquatic. On paper, unperformed, I’m just not quite sure what to make of it.
The best scene is intended to be so: the one in which they finally hunt down the spotted jaguar shark that ate Zissou’s partner. Every principal character crams into a submarine that would be more appropriate for a trippy Beatles music video, and the seas becomes a pastel wonderland out of Sesame Street, and then the shark is quite nightmarishly beautiful. They don’t know what to do about it. They can neither hate nor love it. So Ahab ends the spirit of his quest with an ethereal whisper and Zissou knows just what to ask, looking vengeance in the teeth and admiring its beauty. “I wonder if he remembers me.”
“Congratulations, seriously,” someone says to Zissou about his film. “Thanks,” he says, “though I wish it didn’t require the ‘seriously.’” A lot of Anderson’s films probably get treated this way, as niche novelties without broader appeal. The Life Aquatic is a film of uniquely human desperation, and pleasant ugliness. It is worth every inch of celluloid in both realities, though it is not the film I’d use to defend him – often it seems like the “seriously” is all it has.
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Note: Images are screenshots from the film.