Derek Hill is the author of the new book Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers, now available in the U.K. (Amazon | Waterstone’s | Blackwell ) and out soon in the U.S. ( Amazon ). He has agreed to write several pieces for the Academy. This is part 2; Derek has decided to offer the section of the book on TDL in its entirety. Enjoy!
‘Is that symbolic? We. Haven’t. Located. Us. Yet!’
– Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) has his mind blown when he realises that the train he and his brothers have been passengers on is lost.
Anderson has never been averse to addressing mortality head-on in his films, specifically the death of a spouse (Rushmore), parent (The Royal Tenenbaums) or child (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Although all of his films are ostensibly comedies, there has always been an element of the impermanence of things, of people, that has delicately coaxed an emotional resonance forth from the wackiness. Not particularly original or groundbreaking, but when one considers the frequently bathetic treatment of death in much of American mainstream cinema, Anderson’s unsentimental and realistic treatment of grief is a commendable aspect and intrusion upon his lucid, intensely fabricated theatricality. As much as Anderson has become a master of the elaborate multi-layered mise-en-scene, he also astutely understands the moment to drop back, allowing his characters to feel the brunt of their sorrow without excessive ornamentation. The Darjeeling Limited is as waggish as any of Anderson’s previous work. But at its core is the black hole of loss, the invisible thread that binds us as profoundly (if not more so) than birth.
By this point, it’s impossible to remain neutral about the films of Wes Anderson. You either find his work ‘precocious’, ‘quirky’, ‘self-conscious’ and ‘unfunny’ or delight in their finely crafted intentional artificiality, heightened realism, exaggerated characters and open-hearted emotion. The Darjeeling Limited is not a major departure from Anderson’s previous work, but it is the most focused, relaxed and stripped-down production since Bottle Rocket, while still delivering the same visual hallmarks and familiar themes that he has obsessed over throughout his career. It’s also his most mature film to date – a discerning trip into matters of frayed fraternal obligation and the possibility of friendship beyond the bloodline.
Written by Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, the film focuses on three brothers, all typically Andersonian adult-children of indeterminate wealth and privilege (like characters out of a 1930s screwball comedy), who have not been in contact with one another since the death of their father a year earlier, but have now reunited to take a train trip through India in order to mend their relationship and find enlightenment. Francis, the de facto leader of the group, still healing from an attempted suicide attempt, tries to micromanage their every move with a daily itinerary made up by Francis’ assistant Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky) who travels with the group but in a different compartment of the train. The daily plans, which are always laminated and slipped underneath the cabin door, instruct the brothers as to what holy temples to visit and when to eat, rigidly defining the brothers’ every movement. Peter (Adrien Brody), the married one of the group and a reluctant expecting father, is also the brother closest to making a significant belated leap into full adulthood because of his impending role as a parent. And then there is Jack the lothario, a heartsick literary writer who has spent the last few months living in exile in a swanky Parisian hotel after suffering a painful breakup with his girlfriend (Natalie Portman), which is the subject of the short film Hotel Chevalier that serves as a significant and telling prologue to The Darjeeling Limited.
But the brothers’ ‘spiritual journey’ is fraught with comical miscalculations, arguments and painful recriminations that eventually find the three men kicked off the train and alone in the wilds of India. Stripped of their pretensions of enlightenment, comfort and wealth, they reach rock bottom when a tragic incident sweeps them out of their own neurosis, forcing them to confront their own fragile predicament. The journey does not end there, though. Unbeknownst to Jack or Peter, Francis intends to lead them to their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston) who is now a nun living in an abbey in the shadow of the Himalayas (a nod to Michael Powell’s 1947 film Black Narcissus), despite her refusal to see them because of a man-eating tiger in the area.
Much of the film, especially in the second half, plays like a feminised seriocomic take on Apocalypse Now, with the brothers journeying toward their confrontation with mom – complete with unforeseen detours both ludicrous and dire – who they feel has somehow betrayed them for failing to attend their father’s funeral and willingly isolating herself from the world, like some selfish though charitable Colonel Kurtz. But the brothers’ plans are thwarted yet again when she dismisses their accusations as selfish and wrong, opening the doorway to a hopeful tabula rasa. The Whitman brothers are really searching for meaning, a glimmer of understanding within the fog of the past and their inability to steer through it with clear eyes. Only when their mission is taken out of their hands, ‘to be continued’ as their mother intones before bedtime and then disappears from their lives again (she goes off to kill the tiger), are the brothers free at last to decide their own failure or success. There are no pithy resolutions at the end of the journey, no profound moment of clarity. There is just the realization that one is alive in the moment and that a new journey awaits where one unexpectedly ends. After the brothers are abandoned at the abbey, they climb a mountain and improvise a ritual of their new bond (something they attempted to do earlier in the film to comical results) before literally jumping aboard a train bound for new adventures.
The light and space of India generates a new palette for Anderson to draw from, adding a dusty grit and dimension to his usual meticulous design schemes. It’s a welcome looseness, as is the incorporation of music cues pulled from numerous films of Satyajit Ray (whose films made Anderson want to film in India in the first place) and Merchant-Ivory which adds an appropriate organic texture that Anderson’s regular music composer Mark Mothersbaugh would not have been able to reproduce. And while Anderson’s beloved The Rolling Stones and The Kinks are represented – the use of the Stones’ ‘Playing with Fire’ during the silent reconciliation sequence between the brothers and their mother is a sublimely virtuosic moment – the usual British Invasion stylings are kept to a minimum.
After its premiere at the Venice and New York film festivals, the film opened to initially strong US box office and received some of the best reviews for one of Anderson’s pictures, many finding it a welcome return to form after the perceived failures of The Life Aquatic. But with the praise came the requisite scorn, including accusations of racism, namely from Slate writer Jonah Weiner who blasted the film as Anderson’s ‘most obnoxious movie yet’.[i] Admittedly race has sometimes been a tricky issue in Anderson’s films, even though he consistently uses large ensemble multi-ethnic casts. There is an air of cultural exoticism to the portrayal of minorities that can often come across as patronizing because Anderson consistently simplifies them as inherently good people. However, what makes the accusations hollow is the fact that Anderson views all of his characters through the same elastic comedic lens, not turning them into caricatures so much as exaggerating the inherent goodness he sees within all of his misfits, much like Renoir, Truffaut and Charles M. Schulz did in their own ways. And if that is an artistic crime, then Anderson is guilty as charged.
[i] Weiner, Jonah, ‘How Wes Anderson Mishandles Race’, Slate, September 27 2007, http://www.slate.com/id/2174828/pagenum/all/