Tuesday, October 9, 2007
We Haven't Located Us Yet
As I begin to think about THE DARJEELING LIMITED, I first have to admit that as much as Wes Anderson’s films are what they are by now, I’m more than willing to go along for the ride. His newest film begins in motion, with Bill Murray (playing the role of “The Businessman”) racing to catch the title train on time but failing. There seems to be something symbolic in this, saying that not only won’t Bill Murray be along for the ride this time, but the film has no real place for the paternal force that he represents in the Wes Anderson universe. This time, the characters are on their own.
It’s an intriguing idea, but how does something like this make any sense to somebody who hasn’t seen Anderson’s films? How much this really matters is open to debate but I find myself enjoying the notion that Anderson’s films make up an ongoing story—not through characters that recur but through thematic concerns that are ongoing, yet shifting. His last film, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, may be a bit of a mess but to me it’s a glorious mess. There’s something about it I simply love and more than a few times I’ve found myself popping in the DVD to watch a few scenes and before I know it I’ve sat through nearly the entire thing (I must remember to write up a ZISSOU appreciation soon). If that film was the most elaborate take on Anderson’s overriding themes, then DARJEELING is a deliberate stripping down of them. Fittingly, to strip everything down he chose to go as far away on the map as was humanly possible. Of course, that’s something that the characters in the film are in the process of doing as well.
DARJEELING tells the story of three brothers, played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, meeting up in India as they on the train of the title. The siblings are named Francis, Peter and Jack and it’s been pointed out elsewhere that the three of them share the first names of three famous individuals who got their start with Roger Corman back in the sixties. What this could mean is difficult to say, though it should also be noted that Francis Coppola's son Roman (director of CQ) co-wrote the script with Anderson and Schwartzman. The three characters are meeting up at Francis’s (Wilson’s) behest, to go on a “spiritual journey” one that he clearly hopes will heal all the wounds in the family. Things of course do not proceed as planned. Even in such a distant location, many of the rules of Anderson’s universe still apply, with notions of functionality that seem to exist as if in the late 70s. For example, do train conductors still punch holes in the tickets? And if they do, did they ever do it in India?
The three actors fit perfectly with each other, as brothers should. And I have to mention the beguiling Amara Karan, who plays the main stewardess on the Darjeeling. Much is made of the baggage they carry with them everywhere they go, clearly something that is weighing them down before they can move onto the next step in their lives. “We haven’t located us yet,” is something said when the train becomes unexpectedly lost. Wilson’s Francis of course sees the symbolism in that. Anderson sees the symbolism in everything, even down to what the characters have packed for the trip and what certain characters think other characters should eat for breakfast. And as the movie goes on, we learn more and more that these things are that cause Anderson to love his characters as well. They may be lost in various ways, but the eternal optimism he sees in their behavior comes through. It's what makes THE DARJEELING LIMITED such a huge pleasure.
Also of interest is the film's prologue HOTEL CHEVALIER, now on iTunes, which introduces Schwartzman’s character Jack in a Parisian hotel room, as he is visited by a woman who is presumably an ex, played by Natalie Portman. An intriguing 13-minute short, it plays very much like a Wes Anderson-directed segment of PARIS JE T’AIME that we didn’t get to see until now. CHEVALIER can be considered simply a stab at experimentation, but viewed alongside the feature, one’s appreciation for DARJEELING grows, not out of any kind plot payoff—although that does happen—but in the continuation of the mood that lasts from one to the other. It’s all part of the unique design Anderson brings in telling his stories and it gets harder and harder for me to resist it.
As a movie set in transit, I can’t shake the feeling that THE DARJEELING LIMITED is deliberately transitional, as if Anderson is using the film to go from the excess of his last film to whatever is next. Since BOTTLE ROCKET and RUSHMORE, both filmed in Anderson's home state of Texas, his films have progressed further east on the map. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS was New York, then AQUATIC was Rome and Cinecittà. Now, with THE DARJEELING LIMTED, we’ve arrived in India. Will this trek on the map possibly continue to Hong Kong or Tokyo? Hawaii? Los Angeles? Would it eventually lead him back home? Time will tell. Even if he hasn’t located himself yet, he knows where he is.