Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 27 September 2007
Source Fox Searchlight Pictures 35mm print
Categories The 45th New York Film Festival
The Darjeeling Limited’s opening sequence concludes with two men fiercely running to catch a departing train. The younger man, Peter, pulls ahead, managing to make it on board, and looks back at the older gentleman with a mixture of relief and perhaps a little self-satisfied amusement. Despite a few detours, we will remain on the Darjeeling Limited as Peter Whitman reunites with his brothers, Francis and Jack, during a journey through India in search of spirituality, atonement, and badly needed family bonding. Director Wes Anderson’s fifth feature relies on this now perhaps too familiar theme of estranged families and mutual grief, certain to please his zealous fans but not necessarily enamour the rest of us.
Anderson’s films often remind me of oversized storybooks, and Darjeeling may be his most colorful. The landscapes of India are lush with vibrant cobalt and fuchsia, an undeniably exotic setting enhanced by the lifting of musical tracks from Satyajit Ray and Merchant Ivory classics (since there’s little argument in terms of Anderson’s contemporary musical influence, kudos for adding these compositions to more than a handful of iPods). In the midst of this glorious country, the brothers are the requisite tourists set adrift, with their caravan of exquisite luggage, ignorant cultural appraisals, and gullibility, which causes Francis to lose his overpriced loafers. The ignorance is amusing but pointed, emphasizing a bubble of self-absorption not merely as the stereotypical characteristic of the American tourist, but also as each brother’s personal isolation. All three talk behind each other’s backs, and retain an emotional distance from one another, with little explanation to their mistrust. This is indeed a problem, as they are semi-orphaned, with a missing mother who has left them for a convent, and a dead father, struck by a car a year earlier.
It’s inevitable that these men will act like children, as is the norm in Wes Anderson’s universe: spitefully throwing stones and nearly clocking a few passengers after being kicked off the train for a series of reckless acts; juvenile bickering over their father’s glasses and other small mementos; desperate, control-freak attempts by Francis to keep everyone together, if only physically. Perhaps contextually the theme isn’t so much repetitive as it is recurring, as Anderson has explored both teenagers (Max Fischer) and middle-aged men (Steve Zissou) acting years below their actual age. In Darjeeling, we have the male who has just finished the final stages of early adulthood, experiencing the loss of a father while attempting to learn how to actually be one.
Each of Anderson’s films has displayed progressively more distance, not merely between characters but also between the characters and the viewer, and therefore the melancholy emitting from Darjeeling is noticeably uneven. It’s strange to feel like Margaret Mead, observing these characters through binoculars, especially when there are moments that feel as though they are asking for our empathy and an acknowledgement of the brothers’ buried grief. There are fewer physical knickknacks to distract the eye (thankfully the train is nowhere near as detailed as Zissou’s submarine), yet elite references are numerous and practically name-dropped - why exactly are the brothers named after three very famous men from the 1970’s cinematic world? Knowing two of the screenwriters are heirs to a very famous Hollywood family, this sort of a privileged knowledge feels smirking, distracting from legitimate conversation like a tiresome party anecdote.
Structurally the film does focus on other forms of storytelling: when Peter steps on the train, it’s as though we are whisked into the fantasy world the brothers have constructed for themselves, enabling them to keep up the appearance of what they would prefer people to see. They are safe on the train, surrounded by what their money can buy, avoiding genuine conversation or connection with one another. Leaving the box, so to speak, they encounter uncontrolled situations and therefore instinctive actions and emotions they would rather not deal with. Their fabricated stories occasionally dissolve into something much more honest; Jack, perhaps the most emotional of the brothers, is a short story writer, with suspiciously familiar plot points and characters he insists are fictitious (from the short, Hotel Chevalier, which accompanies the film at the festival, we know this is not true). Jack hands off one of his stories early in the film for his brothers to read and while hints to its plot are dropped, only later does it manifest itself into one of the few scenes in the film that felt not merely fresh to me but touching; briefly, we glimpse an event from the day of the funeral, awkward and uncomfortable, with the kind of details that only siblings might later recall. It hints at exactly why stories matter, what Anderson’s aims for but doesn’t fully succeed in saying - in terms of family, these shared histories and stories, happy or tragic, are how we stay close and how we remember.
The Darjeeling Limited2007
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