On more than one occasion I’ve seen critics attack Wes Anderson for a sense of emotional detachment in his films. I’ve always understood why people see this, but have never really agreed. Although I wasn’t a big fan of Rushmore, there was at least a charming affability to Max Fischer. Chas’s overprotective nature in The Royal Tenenbaums is touching and Margot’s own emotional detachment from her family is in fact what helps the film steer clear of cold detachment as a whole – because this detachment is explored and nuanced. In Fantastic Mr. Fox I can somewhat understand the criticism – but is this because it’s harder for us to have an emotional attachment to an animated film? (Well, of course not – how would you explain the Toy Story trilogy otherwise?) Perhaps Anderson’s Roald Dahl adaptation suffers from being a little too short or too focused on its (admittedly wonderful) aesthetic. In Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel I simply don’t understand comments regarding emotional detachment, and found the two to be subtly very powerful.
Upon watching The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I sadly understand the criticism more than ever before. Zissou, an oceanographer and documentary filmmaker, is destined to hunt for the gigantic ‘jaguar shark’ he saw kill and eat his old buddy Esteban and kill it in an act of revenge. He assembles his crew and attempts to film his journey, joined by Ned Plimpton – who may or may not be Zissou’s son – and Jane Winslett-Richardson, a journalist who comes along to chronicle Zissou’s quest. Jane is pregnant with the child of her boss, who is married to another woman. Both Zissou and Ned fall for Jane, creating a rivalry between them.
The idea is an interesting and unique one, and gives Anderson plenty of scope for list-ticking eccentricities and quirks. Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte, is beautifully and intricately designed. Detail is incredibly specific. The sea creatures are animated and given something of a plasticine-like sheen, giving the film that storybook quality that features so heavily in Anderson’s films.
However, at nearly two hours long the idea seems to be a little ambitiously stretched. It feels like you’ve come across a Steven Moffat-penned Doctor Who monster. It’s a wonderful idea, but seems to be just that – a wonderful idea, snatched from the moment the lightbulb hovers over the head and taken straight to the page without always being fully fleshed out.
On board the Belafonte, then, we’re made aware of Zissou’s infatuation with Jane. But ‘infatuation’ doesn’t quite feel like the right word. They talk a little and Zissou tries – and fails – to kiss her. The next thing you know he’s broken into her cabin and read through her notes where she criticises him for not being the hero he was in her childhood. The obsessive nature of this action implies a possessive infatuation – but despite the fact that Zissou’s character is that of a dejected, slightly glum loner, this crush of his never seems to amount to much in the script. You start to wonder if the infatuation is in fact Zissou’s desire to be hero-worshipped like he used to be in his younger days. If this is the case, it’s too muddled up in the guise of a love triangle and doesn’t ring true. Ned, being younger, more handsome, more polite and generally less of a sulky arse, develops feelings for Jane that are reciprocated.
Naturally, this angers Zissou. Yet when the two argue you still feel disconnected from the both of them because their relationship is indefinable at this point in the film. Are they father and son or just two blokes who think they could be? Does Zissou – despite not allowing Ned to call him ‘dad’ – like the idea of having a son? Does Ned really like the idea of having Zissou as a father? For me, this lack of a definite relationship made several of their scenes feel distant and at times a little cold. I actually thought Zissou was a well-written and interesting character – but his relationships with Jane and Ned didn’t feel authentic enough for me to become emotionally invested in the heart of the film.
That’s where my main problem with the film lies – in the writing. I’m usually impressed by Anderson’s writing style, and there are certainly moments in The Life Aquatic where he’s on form – it’s certainly a funny film, mostly down to little pieces that actually help build characterisation (Willem Dafoe as Klaus is a real standout character and garners most of the laughs). The film also mostly avoids overly saccharine moments (though the final confrontation with the shark teeters dangerously close), and characterisation is generally strong.
Anderson’s problem with this film seems to be the tying together of several well-developed characters, who end up feeling as separate from one another as the tiny cabins that populate the boat the film is mostly set on. This, plus a wonderful idea that is perhaps better suited to a short film than a near-two-hour story, lets the film down significantly.
I did enjoy The Life Aquatic – it’s adventurous, visually engaging and at times very funny. I just didn’t believe it. Even though Anderson often likes to tell stories about storytelling – and often lets his audience know this – I still usually find a way into believing his films, in getting emotionally invested in them. Here, I have to agree somewhat with the critical stance that this film, at least, has issues with drawing the viewer into the emotional lives the characters share with one another.