[7 October 2010]
In the Wes Anderson family, The Darjeeling Limited resembles something of an overlooked child. It didn’t receive the widespread acclaim of Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, and while it was better-reviewed than The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, that film has a wonderful strangeness as well as the cult of Bill Murray to win it some fierce partisans (this writer included). Fantastic Mr. Fox, his most recent outing, won critical praise for transferring the director’s trademark fastidiousness to a medium—stop-motion animation—that welcomes it.
However, Anderson has a deal with Criterion to produce handsome DVD packages of all of his films, and so now arrives a Criterion release of The Darjeeling Limited, offering a welcome chance to re-evaluate this characteristically excellent work. On the surface, several of its components—estranged family members, an absent father, deadpan ennui – closely recall Anderson’s other films, particularly The Royal Tenenbaums, but The Darjeeling Limited stands on its own.
The estranged family here is made up of the three Whitman brothers: Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). They reunite, at the suggestion/insistence of Francis, a year after their father’s death, to travel across India on a “spiritual journey”. Francis is hilariously self-conscious about attaching meaning to this trip—when his assistant says, of the temporarily off-course train, “we haven’t located us yet”, Francis makes him repeat it to milk its metaphorical value—while Peter and Jack feel more dubious. Anderson may, like so many talented writer-directors, have some pet fixations, but he has the nuance to justify them; observe the glances Jack gives to Peter when Francis is speaking in early scenes, as if seeking an audience for an eyeroll.
Anderson is an expert at engineering these family dynamics; see also a late-movie flashback to the day of the father’s funeral, closeness and dysfunction all played out in miniature. The major point of departure for Darjeeling is its placement in a larger world. Anderson’s previous films created elaborate dollhouse environments, most elaborately in the alternate New York City of Royal Tenenbaums. The Life Aquatic took to the seas, but did so inside a vessel as intricate and specific as the Tenenbaum house on Archer Avenue.
In Darjeeling, though, Anderson places his characters on a train for much of the film. The confined spaces are perfect for Anderson’s precise framing, cannily exploiting any claustrophobia some viewers may feel in his just-so compositions and careful camera rotations. At the same time, the characters and movie jostle against the “real” world more than any Anderson movie since Rushmore; there is still meticulous set-design with fetishized objects and outfits, but much of the movie was filmed on a very real, operating train, with side trips to actual Indian locations. Anderson and the cast are lugging their whole movie around like the luggage the Whitman boys keep close at hand for most of the film as tokens of their departed dad. Their attachments are beautiful, but ultimately unwieldy.
Anderson and his co-writers, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, discuss these degrees of control on a commentary track, new to this release of the film. The three men sound confident and calm, less eccentric than their creations, though it’s clear the writing takes cues from their personal lives on some level. They speak of letting “circumstances guide us”—improvisation came not through off-script dialogue, but the condition of writing and then filming in a country with so many outside factors affecting the work. Coppola likened the process to “going someplace we had been to before, but without a map.” You can see this at work in Barry Braverman’s 40-minute making-of documentary, which proceeds without narration, interviews, or even explanatory subtitles; he simply captures the sights and sounds of making this movie, especially when it spills over into the vivid locations.
The commentary is intelligent and the documentary neat, but neither are as much fun as actually watching the film, nor adept at placing Darjeeling in Anderson’s larger filmography. Matt Zoller Seitz provides a video essay more comfortable making direct comments on the film’s themes and how it fits with its siblings. Seitz compares it to 2001—not in style, but in that it represents a culmination of Anderson’s work to that point in his career. There are moments in the film where it feels a little more like a retread than a pinnacle, but the point stands: elements of his past films come together for one that feels similar, yet distinct.
The Criterion DVD has a few deleted scenes and alternate takes, too, but they’re even less essential than usual; it’s Anderson’s companion short, Hotel Chevalier, that feels like the quintessential work that doesn’t quite fit into the larger film but should be seen anyway—a fully produced and precisely arranged deleted section of Jack Whitman’s life. Here we again see Anderson in customary control while understanding the need to leave this material out of the larger work (though it can play, as it did in some theaters, with Chevalier as an immediate prologue). Anderson’s films are sometimes dismissed for having a glassed-in, hermetic quality, but The Darjeeling Limited displays self-awareness in presenting style and affections as windows to the soul.