An Auteurist Critique of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson is a world-renowned filmmaker known for creating vividly colorful films that are consistent with his auteur signature. Though he has only directed 7 films (not including his upcoming film and two short films), he is a perfect example of how even a small body of work can demonstrate auteur theory. Anderson’s films have frequent themes, visual and methodological style and he even uses a lot of the same actors in most of his films.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is a great example to demonstrate Wes Anderson’s stylistic use of pastel color schemes, symmetrical shot composition, and thematic use of story elements such as trust, acceptance, child-like behavior in adulthood, dysfunctional families/ relationships, and death. All of Anderson’s films have an easily recognizable color-scheme. Red and beige are definite colors in all of Anderson’s films from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) to Moonrise Kingdom (2012). In The Life Aquatic, the oceanographer’s outfits are a bright baby blue, complete with yellow accents, and red berets.
The submarine aboard Steve Zissou’s ship the Belafonte is yellow. Even the various sea creatures follow this same pastel color palette. This specific color palette unites with the amazing amount of detail Anderson puts into his films. Complete with a Steve Zissou inspired pinball machine, Zissou’s ship is full of tiny trinkets, pictures, and countless memorabilia that the average moviegoer would never see. These tiny details that Anderson puts in the mise-en-scene add a remarkable amount of detail to the universe of the film.
Of course a cinematic universe is nothing without its characters. Like any of Anderson’s main protagonists, Steve Zissou is flawed, egotistical, and reckless with certain child-like attributes. From the beginning of the film Steve exhibits resentment and smug behavior to the critics who question his work. His melancholy attitude towards life is ever persistent throughout the film. When his wife leaves him and openly informs him that she will be staying with his archenemy, Steve shows neither regret nor grief towards the situation. When confronted by a reporter aboard his ship about his latest documentary, Steve resorts to childish name calling instead of accepting the fact that his opinion is not the only opinion. Steve Zissou shows no hesitation risking his own life and that of his crew when searching for a mysterious shark that ate his friend and fellow colleague. Anderson commonly uses family issues as a thematic device in all of his films. Steve Zissou’s long forgotten son, Ned Plimpton, suddenly shows up to a screening of Steve’s documentary, and shortly after they begin a “deep search” for a real relationship.
This relationship is short-lived, however, due to Steve’s neglect to replace the old helicopter atop the Belafonte. Near death experiences are very common in Anderson’s films, Sam Shakusky being struck by lightning in Moonrise Kingdom, and Francis’ near-death experience in The Darjeeling Limited (2007) are two examples. In the case of The Life Aquatic the whole crew aboard the Belafonte comes face to face with their death. While carelessly lounging in the onboard spa, Steve inadvertently lets his ship be taken over by pirates. Steve (and his ego) take it upon himself to save the crew single-handedly.
At this point in the film, the cinematography takes a different turn than what is usually portrayed by Anderson. Wes Anderson is known for his use of the camera stylistically. His films are full of symmetric set design with the camera sitting perfectly in the middle of it all. The Life Aquatic is full of shots like this; from the grand theatre at the beginning of the film, all the way to the office of Steve Zissou, and even the rooms inside the Belafonte. Anderson also uses an ample amount of tracking shots throughout his films.
The most notable scene that takes advantage of the tracking shot is the scene where Steve and Ned argue while walking about the ship. The camera follows the characters as they go through rooms, doors, climb ladders and stairs until they end up on the top deck. Anderson also tries to fit as many people into frame as possible in every film. Near the end of The Life Aquatic is a medium shot of 11 people sitting in Steve Zissou’s tiny submarine. These shots are a trademark of any Anderson film. In fact, he uses this framing at least 5 other times in the film. These types of shots often have a lot going on inside of them.
The foreground is usually where the key action takes place but Anderson takes full advantage of his framing. Often times there are minor characters interacting with the scene elements behind them. For example, in the scene where Steve is talking to his producer, one of the crewmembers in the background is tinkering with an electrical box and causes a blackout on the ship. Behind the producer a child is reaching his hand inside a fish tank and antagonizing Steve’s pet fish. Lastly, Anderson uses over-the-head-shot when showing a message or words of importance.
This can be seen in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom, and of course The Life Aquatic. Wes Anderson’s thematic and stylistic elements are tremendously established across the 7 films that he has made over the past 13 years. From his symmetrical shots, to his desaturated pastel color palette, to his flawed, dysfunctional characters, Wes Anderson has certainly proved his status of being an auteur. Anderson has showed that he can rise above what Hollywood considers the standard, and without compromising his artistic style in the process.