October 23, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson's most focused film to date. It isn't a particularly ambitious picture, but it steams ahead with a confident focus and charisma not found in his earlier efforts. A title card from the director at the beginning requests that the audience see "Hotel Chevalier" first even though everyone has already pretty much committed themselves regardless once they've taken their seats. It just so happens that I had seen it; I agree that it adds something, but I'm happy it was left off here. The opening sequence as presented, fuelled by an absurdist urgency reminiscent of Godard's Breathless, perfectly sets the tone of picture: light, whimsical and painfully human.

The main characters, once the film finds them all, are brothers of the classic Wes Anderson archetype: intelligent, articulate, manipulative and extraordinarily wounded. Jack is unlucky in love and passive aggressive, forced out of his comfortable exile by his domineering former lover. Peter is pessimistic and arrogant in his emotional distance, fleeing his pregnant wife primarily because he always saw himself as a future divorcee. Francis is domineering, self-hating, and lonely. He crashed his motorbike into a hill and survived only because the doctors rather regrettably managed to do every single thing right. Over the course of this movie, their lives will not progress meaningfully so much as evocatively.

The film hops across India from a train to a river to a village to a mountaintop, with these three peculiar gentlemen leading the way. Each setting is presented with full three-dimensionality; by the time the brothers part with the train, I knew their sleeping car inside and out, not only physically but emotionally and socially. Each stop in their journey is a jigsaw puzzle, and all of the pieces fit together perfectly. I've seen dozens and dozens of ethnographic films, and many of them popped back into my head as I kept track of the Indian Other that constantly lingers at the periphery of the film. Here the ethnographic lens, magnified by fiction and imagination, finds joy and common humanity in sometimes heartbreaking events, skewed heavily by a style that Others the three American brothers at least as much as it Others the natives. Neither depiction is particularly plausible, but that just adds to the charms of this travelogue dreamscape. Robert Yeoman's vibrant and earthy anamorphic photography is perhaps the best of his career.

Everything the brothers do separates them from the world around them; the larger world leans in from all directions and drags them inexorably forward but never quite penetrates their melancholy narcissism. The screwball tone of the picture is made possible by leads that are compelling and sometimes sympathetic but ultimately unlikable enough that pleasure can be taken in their failures. The issues that drive the tension of the picture exist primarily because these characters cannot see beyond their own stake in the related events. The script and performances explore all of the nuances of their collective sense of entitlement, mocking them for their excesses while evoking pity and compassion for the tragic place such excess has left them.

Indeed, the acknowledgment of a world outside his eccentric protagonists feels like a sign of maturation for Wes Anderson, who can be accused of being a little myopic himself. I can't picture the auteur behind The Royal Tenenbaums exploring the very ordinary history between luminous stewardess Rita and the Chief Steward on the train, nor pausing to give a father a moment to express his very personal and yet universal grief. Little touches like these rooted the journey in something more meaningful that the director's usual proactively artificial universe.

When the brothers finally reach their mother in the convent, Anjelica Huston uses her couple minutes of screen time to craft a performance that utilizes the artifice to explain exactly how these men became who they have become. The tragedy of her character is that she can never stop running, and it's most unfortunate that her sons have learned from her example. If the brothers' journey accomplished anything, it was to discover that they are not doomed to repeat their mother. The movie's optimistic final line hints that for them, at least, it might not be too late to reach out and think of someone else. (***½)

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