Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Musgo has his favorite directors - the usuals really - Hitchcock, Kubrick, Malick, etc. While they all have different styles and work in different genres, they have one thing in common - they know how to tell a story. Texas-born, Wes Anderson is one that immediately appealed to me. With the release of Bottle Rocket in 1996, Wes came on the scene as more than just the typical indie director. There was an understanding of film techniques and ways to build a story around larger themes that separated him. The release of Rushmore and couple years later showed a continuing maturity. The 2001 release of The Royal Tenenbaums was a cumulation of lessons Anderson had learned over the previous couple films. The opening scene where we learn the characters and the history of the family is still one of my favorite initial scenes - few directors can set the themes for the film, establish characters and backstory in such a succinct manner.
Since The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes has continued his pace of a movie roughly every three years. In 2004 he released The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and in 2007 he veered slightly with The Darjeeling Limited - a film that, while having many thematic commonalities with his previous films, is a loving tribute to many of his influences. The depth of his stories and unique stories have made his previous films great additions to The Criterion Collection. It's never a stretch to examine his films on different levels and look back on them with the perspective of his following films. October has brought us The Criterion Collection release of The Darjeeling Limited for Musgo to examine.
The plot is the most limited of Anderson's works. It's the story of three brothers played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman who are getting together for the first time since their father's funeral to take a train through India to find their mother. The rich tradition of movies on trains is one of my favorites. While set in current time, traveling by train gives the movie an "out of time" feeling. The train is a superb metaphor for life - the different compartments of our life, all moving forward down the tracks. The train is symbolic of the feeling of powerlessness in the life of the boys- they are on the train having a cigarette and drink and watching the world pass by outside the windows. The train is taking them away from the death of their father and reuniting them with their estranged mother. But they are derailed a number of times - figuratively and literally. At one great point in the film, the train gets lost. Confused, the brothers ask how that can be since it's on tracks and they're told that they haven't been found yet.
The oldest brother, Francis, is played by Owen Wilson. He's been in all of Wes Anderson's film and I've come to view him as Wes' alter ego. And in many ways, he's the "director" of this trip. He's the one who has planned the journey - providing them with laminated itineraries with their days planned to the last detail. When we finally meet their mother - we see that all of his little idiosyncrasies are all the same as hers. He is very much the mother of the group. The character is covered in bandages from an accident throughout the film - symbolic of the suffering and pain due to his father's death. We later learn that it's from a suicide attempt - giving even more depth to his need for the spiritual journey.
The middle brother, Peter, is played by Adrien Brody. He holds the memories of the father. He was the one present at his father's death and keeps many of the father's possessions. The most telling symbol is that he has his father's glasses (never having changed the prescription) - he see's the world as his father did. The fact that Peter is about to become a father himself makes the connection even deeper. The most traditionally comedic scene of the film happens when Peter claims he was the father's favorite - causing a fight between Francis and Peter.
The film's themes that revolve around abandonment and death culminate around a scene that takes place right after the fight. They are left off the train because of the fight and forced to realize they might not complete their journey. On the way back to civilization, they see three boys (younger versions of themselves?) crossing a river. The boys' raft overturns in the river. The brothers are able to save two of the boys but the one that Peter holds on to ultimately drowns. Are we seeing this grief as Peter or through the eyes of the father? The death and funeral is a way for the boys to deal with their father's death that they couldn't at his funeral.
The youngest brother, Jack, is played by Jason Schwarzman. In the world of Wes Anderson films, Jason is the trickster. Jason's character, Jack is certainly the most subversive of the brothers. Jack is a writer and spends the trip not engaged in the spiritual journey but as an observer of it. He has an affair with a stewardess - but he's so distanced from her, he calls her "Sweet Lime" and is so caught up in seeing how she might fit into a story that he fails to realize how she needs his love. At each stop, Jack doesn't talk to his girlfriend, he listens to her answering machine.
It is right after the funeral for the young boy that the movie switches to a flashback scene. The scene is one of which Jack wrote a short story that he insists was not about the real events and characters. So in an interesting twist, the viewer is left wondering, are we seeing a true flashback or are we seeing it as viewed through the eyes of Jack? I lean towards it being right out of a short story. The scene with the three brothers on their way to their father's funeral, stopping to get their father's Porsche from the repair shop. The importance the brothers place on getting their father's prized possession causes them to miss the start of his funeral and it's there that they find that their mother isn't attending the funeral.
The catharsis of this scene leads the viewer back to the present and an emotional reunion with their mother who will abandon them again. But the importance of the journey wasn't getting to their mother - it was dealing with their father's death in their own way - finding their identity within the family dynamic. The relationship between siblings is at the heart of Bottle Rocket and especially The Royal Tenenbaums. The final scene ends with the boys running to catch another train - this time symbolically and literally abandoning all of their luggage to get on the train. This train has multiple cabins that represent the worlds of all the characters we've encountered along the way. But this time everyone is satisfied and spiritually at peace.
Like any good Criterion release - this one is loaded with features that help illuminate everything behind-the-scenes. This review is for the DVD version - on two discs. There's an audio commentary from Anderson,Schwartzman and cowriter Roman Coppola. You get the short film "Hotel Chevalier" which is a prequel of sorts that gives further backstory to Schwartzman's character as his ex-girlfriend shows up at his hotel room in Paris. I think pieces like this are important for the actor to know as backstory but as a viewer I don't think I missed anything by not seeing this first. The second disc includes a documentary, on-set footage, deleted and alternate takes, a discussion on the music of the film, and Wes' great American Express commercials.
There's so much to talk about with a Wes Anderson film. I feel like I don't have the true perspective on this film yet. Often, it takes the next movie to place the previous one in its place. He has released another film, Fantastic Mr. Fox but that didn't feel like part of his Wes-verse. The Darjeeling Limited is a timeless film that address the types of themes that will always appeal to viewers. It's a nice tribute to Indian directors like Satyajit Ray and a love letter to the beautiful country of India. But maybe the "limited" of the title is what holds me back - there's so much here, it's superior to most releases but I want this train to go off the tracks and get even more lost.