The Darjeeling Limited may be director Wes Anderson’s most challenging film to date. Those familiar with Anderson’s previous feature-length works (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) are likely to greet this film with a certain degree of recognition. This feeling of familiarity, I think, is mostly due to Anderson’s continuing collaboration with cinematographer Robert Yeoman, whose eye and hand have informed the striking visual harmonies of Anderson’s movies since Bottle Rocket. The script, written by Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, and Roman Coppola, bears some hallmarks of earlier Anderson works: dark, deadpan humor; dysfunctional families; and missing parents. But Darjeeling’s storyline seems to exceed the others in maturity, perhaps because of its meandering pathos, which echoes the characters’ temperaments as they make their strange pilgrimage.
The story: Three brothers, Francis, Jack, and Peter Whitman (played by Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody) meet up in India on the Darjeeling Limited, a train headed nobody’s quite sure where, a year after their father’s death. The men haven’t seen each other since the day of the funeral. The whole trip is Francis’s idea: He wants a renewed kinship—if Jack and Peter would care to indulge this desire. “I want us to become brothers like we used to be,” he says. He makes the crucial request that they all “say yes to everything, even if it’s shocking and painful,” which jumpstarts their adventures in the spirit of confrontation of the unknown and the unpleasant. Their journey and reunion is in no uncertain terms a positive attempt to mourn. The comedy that ensues plays on the tension of maintaining the appearance that no struggle, individual or common, is or should be going on.
Much commentary has been written apropos of the story taking place in India: Why India? What do three American upper-class white men (depending on who’s asking and on the day of the news week, the order of the qualifiers changes) hope to “find” there? What are Anderson, Schwartzman, and Coppola, as the authors of this tale, saying about India? And implied beneath everyone’s curiosity (mine included), are they saying it “right”?
The short answer is, there has been and will always be a tension between artistic representation and that which is being represented. This particular discourse can be of ethical substance—but this movie is not, in any manifest sense, about that tension. Asked if these issues presented any problem during writing or filming, Anderson said, “First of all, if you get very sensitized to ‘Oh, well how’re people gonna react to this?,’ then you’re not gonna do what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna be kind of trying to modify. It won’t be as strong. We have our intentions and then we’re trying to make something personal. . . and then, ultimately, to me the real goal is that I wanna just do whatever I wanna do. I wanna make my movie. And I think it only gets diluted if you’re wary of [the way the work is going to be received]. You should go with it in its purest, strongest form.
“The way we shot it, that’s exactly the way the place looked and those’re all the people, the people we cast in that are the people that live there. They’re people we got to know. So the rituals that they’re performing are their rituals. We didn’t modify them, but at the same time, when you shoot in slow motion and you play The Kinks over it and there’s smoke in the air, there is something that’s being…you know, we are inventing something to go with it. But my main response would be first that there’s virtually nothing in the movie that is representative of India that we invented or even modified. It tends to be just things we discovered because we went there. I just went there. I went there with the idea that I’d like to share the things that have excited me about this country and to learn about it. To learn more about it in the process of making the film, but it’s a film about three foreigners traveling there, and it’s their point of view and it’s never gonna be anything more than that. And we went there as tourists, and I think we’ll never be anything other than tourists in that country, and for us to pretend to be something other than that, unless we move there and live there for a long period of time, we’re always gonna have the point of view of tourists.
“The movie is significantly about the relationship of these brothers at the same time that it’s about their experience of India. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be too careful about these things. I think you just have to do the thing you want to do, the thing you like to do, and not be too sensitive about how somebody’s gonna react to it, how they’re gonna interpret it, because everybody goes to the movie with his own expectation, and his own point of view, and someone will wanna look at it and take things, take subtleties that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and he’ll interpret in the way that comes from him— which is totally appropriate. Everybody has to do that. Anybody who goes to see a movie does that. Every time we see a movie, we bring ourselves into it.”
Anderson’s impression of India is a strong presence in this film in many regards. You could say this is India infused with the aesthetic sensibility characteristic of many of Anderson’s films: shots that have a wide depth of field showcasing a tableau-like compositional tension in rich colors. These shots can provoke a kind of hyper-awareness of setting and object placement, or even of Anderson himself as the man behind the curtain making it all happen. You could also say that elements of an Indian aesthetic sensibility are celebrated by Anderson’s fine eye. For some, this will impede the film’s efforts at storytelling. For others, it will be essential to it. Whichever way you lean, it’s clear that no one is disrespected at the cultural level. The same goes for the characters themselves, as well as the plot. Some elements of the story are “real” and some of them are made up. This is a creation, an artwork rather than a documentary.
So much of what’s apparent about Francis, Jack, and Peter is that no matter where they are, they’re alienated from themselves because they’ve been traumatized by loss. The foreignness of India plays into this, if only to underscore that the boys are out of their element emotionally. But that’s not to say that India as a seat of culture is put forth merely as a metaphor for something else. To say that would be in some sense to strip the film of its complexity. Anderson doesn’t make this oversight.
He shows us things—individuals, Americans, Indians, tourists, traveling, markets, tapestries, relationships, and deaths—in their element, the element being a Wes Anderson film. The Darjeeling Limited is a funny movie, a tense movie, an entertaining movie, and it is simultaneously a funny Wes Anderson movie, a tense Wes Anderson movie, and an entertaining Wes Anderson movie. Compared to his other films, it has less of a forward thrust as far as plot and quick wit are concerned, but that seems fitting for a story about how hard and frustrating it is to move forward. I don’t begrudge Anderson’s decision to paint more than one canvas with the same brush. He has a distinct style, but more than style he has talent, and these can both be seen and appreciated in spades in The Darjeeling Limited.