The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizou

This is one of my favourite films of all time. It is by my favourite director, Wes Anderson, it stars my favourite actor, Bill Murray and the protagonist is my favourite animal, a shark. But aside from these surface elements, the heart of the film is beating hard with concepts of revenge and forgiveness – two elements of the human-shark interface that require attention.

At the opening of the film, Steve Zizou, an ageing oceanographer styled along the lines of an American version of Jacques Cousteau, is sitting on stage in the question and answer portion following the screening of his latest film, Adventure No.12 “The Jaguar Shark” (Part 1). The film is a documentary which captures the death of his best friend Estoban by a jaquar shark. A person in the audience asks Steve if it was a deliberate choice never to show the jaguar shark.

Ned asks, “What’s next for Team Zizou?”
Steve replies, “Well, that was only part one. It’s a cliffhanger. Now I’m gonna go hunt down that shark or whatever it is, and hopefully kill it.”
To the compare sharing the stage with him, “I don’t know how yet. Maybe dynamite.”
The compare states with incredulity, “You don’t know what it is?
Steve states, “No, I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life.”
Compare: You say it is a jaguar shark. That’s the title of your film.
Steve: “It was coming right at us. I just said the first two words that came into my head.”
Woman in audience asks: “That’s an endangered species at most. What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?”
Steve: thinks and shrugs and then says “Revenge.”

This exchange encapsulates so many discussions about sharks. Humans have been exacting revenge on sharks for millennia. Sailors often taunted and tortured sharks and Collin Barnett’s WA government’s Shark Mitigation Strategy is nothing short of revenge for shark bite incidents. The list is endless of how humans take shark bite incidences so personally and are affronted by them on a very deep level.

Human mastery and the diminishment of animal agency has been the prevailing course of action when sharks and humans meet. This film starts out in familiar territory; an aging oceanographer suffering a mid-life crisis sets out to seek revenge on a shark. As the film progresses, later in the ship the Belafonte, a nice homage to Jacques Cousteau’s ship the Calypso, Steve declares “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go on an overnight drunk, and in ten days I’m gonna set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it. Anyone that would care to join me is more than welcome.”

The character of Steve is depressed; despairing of the loss of his friend, his youth, career, success, his wife…and the outlet for his rage is the shark. The film is steeped in the hilarious machismo of 1970s adventure films and the character of Steve has been marinating in it his whole life. He realises it is all a sham. His slow unravelling is hilarious and moving at the same time as only Bill Murray can deliver, but the most revealing moment is when he finally relents, surrenders and accepts his lack of mastery over everything – especially nature and the shark.

They spot something on the radar and decide to go down in the submersible to investigate if it is the jaguar shark.

At the end of the film in the submersible on their rendezvous with the jaguar shark:

Steve: “I hooked a rhinestone Bluefin on a rope to give him something to eat.”

Upon seeing the huge jaguar shark approach their tiny submersible and then glide over it at the last moment watching its enormous underside pass over them through the glass window to the stirring sounds of Sigur Ros.
Klaus asks, “Is that him?”
Hennessey answers with sombre reverence, “That’s him Klaus.”
The shark doubles back and takes the rhinestone Bluefin, rocking their submersible.
Steve starts up the submersible again as Jane asks, “Are we…are we safe in here?” and Steve answers, “I doubt it.”
Klaus asks, “You still want to blow him up?”
Steve sighs “No. We’re out of dynamite anyway.”
As Eleanor watches it in the distance she says with a smile “It is beautiful Steve.”
He acknowledges as it swims by, “Yeah, it’s pretty good isn’t it?” and after a pause, “I wonder if it remembers me?” fighting back tears in his eyes. The shark swims out of the scene into the inky black.

This scene is moving on so many levels but mostly because it is acknowledging the shark as a sentient being with memory. Steve gives it allowance and affordance and frees it from guilt or responsibility and frees himself from a need for revenge. They are able to come together and part again on neutral terms. This encapsulates so many ideas including becoming together as Harroway puts it, animal agency, surrender to nature and much larger important ideas of peace. It’s a lovely notion to ponder as we approach Christmas.

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