The Darjeeling Limited September 30, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , trackback
Sometimes I can understand how films polarize movie fans (the work of Quentin Tarantino) and sometimes I can’t (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, for example). Right now, with his new film The Darjeeling Limited just opening the New York Film Festival, Wes Anderson seems to be an auteur under fire, though more of the brush variety than a raging inferno. I can’t be objective any more than I can understand most of the criticism I read (which is substantial, and I keep looking at every review I find in search of some true rationale for the sneering). Anderson’s films are far and above those of any other American filmmaker from the same indie/post-indie generation. He has an unparalleled ability to craft unlikeable characters you want to spend time with, not just once but over and over again. Their failure expresses a very certain, specific emotion that feels at once real and imaginary. By repeatedly going to similar places of frustration and regret, Anderson somehow accomplishes a great deal of truth in such a highly imaginary world. These families of broken potential he explores tend to give audiences hope by trying to make things right. It’s always, always the journey in these films, since the destination has, so far, been of the same nature each time.
It seems the common source of attack for many of Anderson’s detractors concerns the director’s repeated use of a particular style - one in which Anderson himself has created and honed through five films now. Aside from the absurdity of criticizing a director for tweaking similar themes through similar devices, my real problem with this argument is that I don’t think it’s fair to view the world Anderson has so completely brought to life as comparative of the outside reality we face once we step into the street or away from our television sets. His films are a universe unto themselves, on par with the classic Walt Disney animated films or Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thrillers. Asking why Anderson enjoys using similarly troubled characters or devices like slow motion and perfectly placed classic pop songs is akin to complaining about the recurring murders and male-female relationships in Hitchcock’s films or little girl lost themes found in the animation of Disney’s features or those of Hayao Miyazaki.
But I digress. The Darjeeling Limited. It’s a beautiful film of maturing sadness, pain, and grief - with laughs. Of course, that describes all of his films. Wes Anderson may love Wes Anderson films, but so do I, and I have no problem with that. The Darjeeling Limited is closer in most every way to The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s 2001 film for which he was nominated with co-writer Owen Wilson for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, than The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, his 2004 film deemed a disappointment commercially and critically. It’s also better than the latter (still underrated) film, if not quite up to the heights of the former. What both Darjeeling and Tenenbaums share, and what Life Aquatic lacked in comparison, are the tender details necessary to humanize Anderson’s eccentricities. The new film tones down the previous one’s comic book quirks and crowded ensemble and instead leaves us with just three lead characters who spend much of their time on a train.
That train is named The Darjeeling Limited and the three stars are Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, as the brothers Whitman who haven’t seen each other since their father’s funeral a year ago. Francis (Wilson) has organized a journey through India in search of a spiritual healing. He’s recently been involved in a severe motorcycle crash, leaving his face and head noticeably bruised and bandaged. Peter (Brody) seems to have taken the unexpected loss of their father the hardest and picked up several of the old man’s items for his own, including large prescription sunglasses. He’s also six weeks away from becoming a new father and unsure if his wife was really the right woman to spend his life with. Jack (Schwartzman) is struggling to get over a relationship gone bad, something explored further in Anderson’s short film Hotel Chevalier, which is available for free online but not currently showing theatrically with the feature.
For anyone wondering whether they should first watch Hotel Chevalier before seeing the new film, the answer is of course you should. There are two significant references to the short in the feature that will fly over those who haven’t seen it, as well as diminishing the seriousness of Jack’s troubles. Just seeing the film makes Jack appear depressed and odd, but seeing the short beforehand adds an important depth and understanding to his problems. The teaser I saw before the film started doesn’t help matters, directing audiences to hotelchevalier.com (which, in turn, directs visitors to iTunes) instead of just showing the 13-minute prologue. Not surprisingly, Darjeeling also adds some meaning to Hotel Chevalier and I found the short more impressive on reflection after having seen the feature than I had originally. The emotionally abusive nature of the relationship gains meaning when the viewer learns of Jack’s hang-ups both preceding and subsequent to the events in the short.
In both Darjeeling and Tenenbaums, it’s the emotional blow dealt to the Anderson faithful that really strikes me. If you’re not affected by what the director has done in his previous films, then why even waste money to see his subsequent works or time grousing about them. It’s not a difference of opinion that I find tiresome. It’s the reiterations of the same criticisms without understanding that many, many people see a completely different allure to Anderson’s films, something the complainers apparently can’t appreciate. The Darjeeling Limited playfully bows to Anderson’s admirers in the film’s opening, teasing Bill Murray, making his fourth appearance for the director, and passing the slow-motion Kinks-scored baton to Adrien Brody catching up to the eponymous locomotive. Far from being overly cute in its self-reference, the scene instead assures audiences that yes, this is a Wes Anderson film, and indeed, this is the kind of movie he enjoys making. There’s a welcome evolution of maturity in the film, but also a refusal to completely change the things many viewers hold near and dear in Anderson’s style.
Aside from the usual moments of hilarity found in Anderson’s films (the rotating prescription strength painkillers are used to frequent and funny effect), I think the part of Darjeeling most people will enjoy and be moved by is when the three brothers happen upon a trio of young Indian boys transporting goods across the water. As the raft and boys struggle, the Whitmans finally bond by trying to save the three children against the strength of the current. The ordeal leads to the spiritual journey Francis had superficially been trying to accomplish all along, helping the brothers to regain their lives and let go of their dead father. These scenes, coupled with a visit to their mother’s convent, showcase Anderson’s masterful ability to alternate moods and feelings via sound (not just music, but silence also) and his deceptively simple dialogue.
“I guess I still have some healing left to do,” Francis says as he removes the bandages and looks at his blood-stained facial gashes in the mirror. If that doesn’t get you at least a little, especially given the added depth from Wilson’s recent personal problems, you’re a cold soul unable to appreciate what Anderson’s doing here and elsewhere. To borrow from a forum discussion I recently read, this line and moment in Darjeeling is the cousin of Tenenbaums‘ “I’ve had a rough year, dad.” Is this problematic? No more so than Disney’s happy endings or Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. All of these little aspects of the worlds Anderson magically creates in his films exist solely in the films. They’re parallel universes to our realities. I’m not sure if those with a negative opinion of Anderson fail to understand this concept or simply dislike the idea that someone dares to create a near-mythology separate from what’s found in most movies. It’s nothing new, though, as movies have quite obviously always been different and not representative of most people’s actual lives. That’s why their movies and that’s why so many people devote hours and hours of their lives to watching them.