Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Darjeeling Limited - 2007

"The Darjeeling Limited" - 2007
Dir. by Wes Anderson - 1 hr. 31 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I can understand some of the criticism of this movie, that suggested that it's just another Wes Anderson movie on the subject of father issues, but no one seems to hold against filmmakers who beat the romance-trouble story to death, so I'm not going to hold that against Anderson.  And more to the point, his films up to this point have been different enough from each other, and also represent a steady refining of the subject matter and approach to the subject matter.  I get it if you jumped off-board before "The Darjeeling Limited," but I also think that it's the true gem of Anderson's movies to date.

"The Darjeeling Limited" is preceded by a short film entitled "Hotel Chevalier," about a post-breakup meeting in a Paris hotel room between Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and the unnamed girlfriend that Jack has fled from (Natalie Portman).  It would be possible to stick just to the main movie, but "Hotel Chevalier" does settle the issue of whether or not Jack is a fiction writer (sort of a running gag throughout "Darjeeling").  And, it does offer a stunning view of Natalie Portman, which is worth mentioning.  "The Darjeeling Limited" starts off with a title card saying "Part 2," so you probably should just include "Chevalier" in your viewing experience.

"The Darjeeling Limited" starts off with a cameo by Bill Murray, playing a businessman of some sort who is running late for his train in India.  He tries to run it down, and not only fails, but is also outrun by Peter (Adrien Brody), who manages to outrun Murray and successfully catch the titular train.  Peter is one of the three Whitman brothers, whom he is joining on the train for some sort of spiritual journey organized by Francis (Owen Wilson).  The brothers pop and trade prescription pills, and smoke and drink constantly, although they never seem to lose their composure.  Francis' face is swathed in bandages and walks with a cane, due to a motorcycle accident that leads him to wonder why he and his brothers aren't close (the impetus behind the trip).  There's real tension between the brothers, they take turns telling each other secrets to the people they're supposed to be keeping secrets from almost as revenge on each other.

As is standard with Anderson's films, the key word here is "melancholy."  The characters are uniformly unhappy, although they have their own distinct reasons (and reactions) to their circumstances.  There's a bit of dialogue between Francis and his assistant Brendan, when the train gets lost (yes, really) that Francis sells like it's the big point of the journey.  Brendan tells him, "We haven't located us yet."  While true, the line that gets more to the heart of the matter comes from Jack, after he and his brothers being kicked off the train for persistent misbehavior, is asked by Rita (Amara Karan) what's the matter with him.  Jack thinks for a second, and replies, "Let me think about that.  I'll tell you the next time I see you."  This is the entire point of the movie: the three brothers have shut down following the death of their father, and seem incapable of moving forward.  In a fantastic visual metaphor, the three brothers travel everywhere using their father's luggage (or baggage, if you prefer).  It's a pretty extensive set, and the idea of travelling that heavily is ludicrous, but that point seems lost on them.  They have all reached a point in their lives where nothing is working, not even their relationships with each other, and they've got to sort out their past in order to escape it.  There's a strong parallel to Bill Murray's character in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," but instead of facing down a lifetime of mistakes closer to the end of their lives than the beginning, they're adults with a lot of years left in front of them.

The characters' narcotic-assisted self-indulgent navel-gazing yields problematic results, and it's not until only partially-averting a tragedy do the brothers have a chance to put their own behavior into perspective.  This renews their resolve to see through the actual reason for their trip: to track down their long-disappeared mother.  There are a number of really heart-breaking scenes in this film, and two biggest are the tragedy in an Indian village (which finally forces the brothers into action of any kind), and their interaction with their mother (Anjelica Huston).  They aren't particularly welcome; she asked them not to come, and reluctantly takes them into the convent that she's teaching at.  When she's finally pressed on why she abandoned them, she replies with a detour - a suggestion that they can communicate better without words.  It's an admission than there's no answer that's going to be sufficient, and that she's not particularly interested in hearing about the results of her actions, either.  So when she's gone without a word or explanation in the morning, it's not a surprise, but it's a confirmation that they've already gotten everything from her that they are going to get.

For such a heavy movie, the visuals are another issue entirely.  Instead of mirroring the darkness of the tone of the story, "The Darjeeling Limited" is alive with color.  Every time I've watched this film, I've found myself at some point just marveling at the colors.  They're not garish, either.  There is simply always one overwhelming color choice made, and then there's the minuscule details that one has come to expect from a Wes Anderson movie.  It simply appears to be a truly different world, which is the case.  On a similar note, the soundtrack choices are in the usual Anderson wheelhouse (a trio of vintage The Kinks tracks and a similar vintage The Rolling Stones song are present, along with a lot of Indian film songs), but they're not obvious choices, and add a considerable amount of atmosphere to the movie.  As for the acting, it's so closely tied to the story, and that seems like a victory.  As I mentioned before, the brothers all act out under the pressure of the weight they're all struggling under.  Jack finds solace in women, Peter is a sort of kleptomaniac, and Francis reverts to his attempts to control everyone (and we find out where he gets it from, too).  Despite the stylized dialogue, the characters feel real, as do the tensions between them.

"The Darjeeling Limited" is my favorite film by Wes Anderson so far.  I've enjoyed all of his work, but in this case I don't want to play along with the "I liked your first album best" instinct.  This movie feels like a distillation of and improvement on what the previous films have been dancing around, and with a fantastic backdrop to boot.

4.5 / 5 - DVD

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