From New York, Wes Anderson sailed off to Cinecittà Studios in Rome to make The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), the first instance of what would become a personal trend of choosing locations that enabled him to travel abroad. Inspired by the classic marine life documentaries by French oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau, this was Wes’s most overtly autobiographical work in that the character of Zissou (played by Bill Murray), as well as being an explorer, is also a filmmaker and the head of a ragtag crew. Underlying the adventure story is another dysfunctional family narrative. Steve struggles to be a father to his long lost son, Ned (Owen Wilson), and Team Zissou must band together to track down the Jaguar Shark who killed their beloved colleague Esteban. Loyal collaborator Murray (who has been in eight of Anderson's nine features to date, soon to become nine out of 10 after The French Dispatch) excels in his most centrally billed role, and the character has since become a poster child for depression.
Steve Zissou, from The Life Aquatic, is a hybrid of Bill Murray (who plays him) and the explorer filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, of whom both Anderson and his cowriter Noah Baumbach were huge fans as kids. Their enthusiast perspectives are loaded onto Steve’s long lost son, Ned, who enters the picture with a naive respect for a once renowned filmmaker even though his star is on the wane. As Zissou admits: “I know I haven’t been at my best this past decade.” But like Ned, Wes doesn’t judge a hero character for being weaker than his once bulletproof image would suggest.
Steve Zissou, clad in a silvery blue Team Zissou polyester wetsuit, misses a step and tumbles forward, rolling down the stairs of Hotel Citroën. The building is decrepit, with foliage and animals populating what were once glorious rooms. In better days, Steve came here with his first wife, Jacqueline, whom he loved so much that he tattooed her name onto his body and christened a submarine after her. But she didn’t really love him. Birds fly as Steve lands with a resounding thump at the bottom of the stairs. He stays where he has fallen, lying prone, arms spread eagled.
“Did you get that, Vikram?” he asks a man with a movie camera. With Steve is a small crew, also wearing silvery blue Team Zissou wetsuits, and all peering down from the top of stairs.
“Uh yeah,” says Vikram, training the camera on his fallen boss.
“Good,” says Steve, “We’ll give them the reality this time: a washed up old man with no friends, no distribution deal, wife on the rocks, people laughing at him, feeling sorry for himself.”
From this humiliation onwards, there is slight softening of Zissou’s arrogant manner. Failure runs through Wes’s work, especially his first four films. Failure, and in particular acknowledgement of failure, lends characters grace notes absent when they don blinkers and gallop towards the perceived rewards of success. Failure awards the perspective that happiness exists in places where callow youths who are desperate for recognition cannot anticipate. Disillusionment is not all bad – to shed illusions is to become wise. To fail in one area does not mean that all is lost. As Arthur Golden writes in Memoirs of a Geisha:
“Adversity is like a strong wind. I don’t mean just that it holds us back from places we might otherwise go. It also tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be.”
Illustrations from @printedpeanut