Recently, I had a conversation with some people about Wes Anderson films. They maintained that his best work was his most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). I disagreed, though I could understand their point; The Grand Budapest Hotel performs some unique narrative flips, and is certainly one of his most visually pleasing films to date. In a similar conversation with a separate friend, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) was suggested as his best work. Again, I can completely understand why—Moonrise Kingdom was lovely and definitely the most mature film in his oeuvre, but as it was a joint production between him and Roman Coppola, I would say that while it has a lot of Andersonian visual and narrative flourishes, the emotional core of the film is much more derived from Coppola’s vision than Anderson’s. I argued, and will continue to argue, that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)--despite its flaws--is Anderson’s best work.
Thematically, I’ve always found Anderson’s work to be pretty transparent: he is interested in masculinity, what delineates it, what derails it, and what demands it makes on both people in general and men in particular. I don’t generally gravitate towards men-centric work. Anderson’s is one of the few that do draw me in, and part of that is his treatment of his female characters. His women characters are almost always cyphers, but cyphers with interiority that exists beyond the context of the scene. So, even if they don’t drive the narrative, there is a recognition that these characters drive their own narratives, and we simply don’t have access to them (Ethaline’s life as an archeologist, Margot’s libertine adventures, Eleanor’s own oceanographic research and her privileged life, Jane’s career at the paper and her decision to be a single parent, Mrs Fox’s painting and so on, with varying levels of success). We catch glimpses of it, but rarely indulge in the details of it—unlike his men, who are seemingly all surface. Anderson’s films rife with men: loud men, quiet men, silly men, manipulative men, angry men, loyal men and gentle-men. But this is the trick of Anderson’s men; they seemingly have no inside, but that is because the inside is everywhere. Like the ocean, which serves a larger metaphor in The Life Aquatic, what you see on the skin of the waves is merely a reaction to things happening below the surface.
While the gender politics of Anderson’s films are endlessly fascinating to me, that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about, nor what I think makes The Life Aquatic the best of his work. Rather, I would argue that what makes the film the strongest out of his current body of work is the question at the emotional core of the film which is, do you choose to blow up your shark or not? Let me back up.
The Life Aquatic is, on the surface, a story about a Jacques-Yves Cousteau homage/parody, the eponymous Steve Zissou, who is a pompous braggart with entitlement issues, flagging self-esteem, and crashing into late middle age extremely ungracefully. All of this is compounded by both Steve’s dwindling relevance and popularity, and the death of his best friend and father-figure, Esteban du Plantier. The film opens to one of Steve’s own films—his latest and most widely panned—which chronicles Esteban’s death at the teeth of the previously undiscovered Jaguar shark, and Steve’s own plans to get revenge by blowing it up, setting up both the reflexive narrative frame of the story and it’s driving action.
A symbolic reading of this framework is pretty transparent: the shark is loss and their search is how one deals with grief, Esteban’s death is the passing Zissou’s era, Ned is his potential redemption in a new role (fatherhood). The film is absolutely about masculine anxiety over how an individual is supposed to operate in a world where his relevance is increasingly diminished. His fans are abandoning him. His critics dismiss him. His best friend and most stalwart defender is dead. His wife’s role is an open secret, the “brains behind team Zissou” as well as the money. His ocean is seemingly turning against him. His crew, though loyal, are confused and frustrated by his increasingly erratic behavior. He’s faced with a previously-unknown adult child. His ship is falling apart. Put simply, Steve is a patriarchal figure outmoded and outclassed at every turn, and as a patriarchal figure has no tools with which to express these anxieties. While other modes of manhood are represented within the world of the film, they are inaccessible to him in some form or manner. Further, I would argue that these modes are never shown as a way ‘out’ of the maze of masculinity. Klaus is shown as being in a sort of arrested development, nursing childish jealousy at Ned’s interloping; Alistair shown as successful in his professional life, but still just as trapped by it as Steve is his, just in a different, literal way; the bond company stooge Bill is shown as being mousy and continually acted upon.
However, there is a different reading that can be pulled from the film, if one just reframes what the shark is meant to be read as. I suggest we read the shark as representative of not simply loss but rather the past, a richer metaphoric framework comes into focus.
The Jaguar shark, at the start of the film, is doubted to really exist. If it does exist, Steve is asked, wouldn’t blowing it up be a crime? Steve doesn’t care, because the shark harmed him, almost irreparably so, and he wishes to harm it in return. The push of the plot is getting to the shark, and it is the destructive drive to return to the moment of Esteban’s death via the body of the shark that causes all the conflict in the film. The shark is an impossible figure; it exists, but at the start of the film Steve is very clear that he’s not entirely sure he knows what it looks like or even where it is. Once they reach the area where the shark might be, locating requires another sacrifice to hammer home the futile nature of Steve’s quest, just as futile as the arm he throws across Ned’s chest before the moment of impact. It is only after this that we get to see the shark, and then only for a moment.
The moment where we get to see the shark is the emotional culmination of the film. It is a smart choice on Anderson’s part. Another director might have place all the emphasis on Ned’s death, or the funeral shortly after it. Instead, all of the catharsis is funneled into the moment Steve and his people sit at the bottom of the ocean and look out the windows of his submarine as this giant shark passes over them. It’s here that it becomes clear; the past is truly another country, and we cannot revisit it unaltered. When asked by Klaus—and I think that choice is important, because Klaus is a literal man-child, and meant as both a contrast to the more mature Ned and a foil for Steve—if he still wants to blow it up, Steve replies, “No. We’re out of dynamite, anyway.” This is the moment where we are faced with the realization that though the past can hurt us (“Are we safe in here?” “I doubt it.”), overwhelm us (“It is beautiful Steve.”) and continually moves away from us (“I wonder if it remembers me?”), we must face it.
The ocean in The Life Aquatic is quite literally life itself. It seems really clichéd to point it out so explicitly, but Anderson does like his clichés (and, more to the point, I think he works with it in a very interesting way). It provides our earliest visuals of Steve and his life, his crew and what he cares about. But moreover, it’s a strange, often absurd place, populated by colourful alien sea life that arrest the both the characters and the viewers in small moments of wonder. Even the terrifying aspects of it, like the Jaguar shark, are beautiful in retrospect. And it makes us answer the question: how do we deal with our past, and all the loss and grief and mistakes that it can entail? And this to me is why The Life Aquatic is the strongest film in Anderson's oeuvre, and why I will defend it to the death.
Do you choose to kill your shark?