Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Darjeeling Limited (& Hotel Chevalier)

In his video essay for the film, critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls The Darjeeling Limited "Wes Anderson's 2001." It is an apt description: like Kubrick's space odyssey, Anderson's spiritual journey not only displays but summarizes all his themes, styles and motifs. Furthermore, much of Anderson's movie visually recollects Kubrick's magnum opus, particularly in its use of wide-lens framing of confined areas, epic composition that makes characters small and meaningless within the sets than contain them. However, that space is a double-edged sword, as the lens is so wide that it captures the edges of the sets: in pulling back to minimize the power of the individual, the camera also sets down the dimensions of the rooms and corridors. These areas are big enough to dwarf a person, yet because we can see their ends, we know they cannot support free-roaming human life.

All of Anderson's films operate in this mode, of course, but this is the first one to think of the world outside luxurious but lived-in hotel rooms and train cabins. The compartmentalized, ultra-detailed set design that makes all of his films resemble immaculate dollhouses is suddenly thrown against the real world. What's more, it's a world opposite to his Western, privileged settings. The Darjeeling Limited, and its short-film prologue, Hotel Chevalier, represent Anderson's first attempt to take his theatrical and literary characters off the stage and page and into something grander. Unsurprisingly, where previous films owed stylistic ties to theatre (Rushmore) and literature (The Royal Tenenbaums), The Darjeeling Limited must directly invoke the cinema, and not in the "movie about movies" manner of The Life Aquatic.

Perhaps that explains why Anderson prefaces his movie with another one, the short Hotel Chevalier. When the film and short came out in 2007, I fixated on Hotel Chevalier for the same reason that every other male in the 16-24 bracket (and that's a conservative estimate of age range) heard about it: to see Natalie Portman naked. What the audience gets instead is a morose comedy, so glacial that the deadpan delivery found throughout Anderson's corpus seems as animated as Tarantino dialogue in comparison.

The short does offer some background information relevant to the feature -- Jack (Jason Schwartzman), one of the three brothers in The Darjeeling Limited, resides in Paris, where the ex-girlfriend referenced throughout the full-length film comes to visit him -- but it also works as the whole of The Darjeeling Limited condensed into 13 minutes. Anderson opens on Jack lying in his bed, his yellow robe matching the almost offensively bright primary color of the walls and bed sheets. It might seem sunny but for the look of misery on Jack's face and the slumped posture of his resigned body on the bed. In this context, the yellow becomes jaundiced, ironic, and Jack comes off like a toned-down Willard at the start of Apocalypse Now.

He receives a phone call from his ex, who announces that she's arrived at his hotel without invitation. Yet a sense of inevitability hangs over the conversation, and Jack tersely but wearily gives her his room number. She barges in, brushes her teeth with his toothbrush, takes a bath he drew and generally peruses his stuff. Portman appears with her hair still growing back in after V For Vendetta, her short 'do recalling Manic Pixie Dream Girls of time past, specifically Jean Seberg in Breathless. But Seberg's character was as much an anti-MPDG as the embodiment of one, a siren using the guise of the alluringly quirky woman to tempt men to their doom. Portman's character follows in Patricia's footsteps, inextricable from Jack's life yet clearly a harbinger of his misery.

Not that she seems to be too pleased with herself either. The sex scene that sent so many racing to the Internet to shout "Natalie Portman nude!" is one of the saddest, most despairing sex scenes I've seen outside a Tsai Ming-liang or Antonioni film. It isn't even a sex scene, as the two of them are so broken and lonely that they cannot even fuck the pain away. In the end, Jack just reaches for his robe to clothe his ex, unwilling to add to his misery later for a moment's respite now. The short ends with the pair standing on the room balcony, forgetting their pain in admiration of the architecture of Paris, not finding anything of themselves until they completely surrender to the outside world.

Follow up that piercing revelation with the opening shot of The Darjeeling Limited, which trades its predecessor's frigid wit for a frantic opening that borders on the slapstick -- later, Anderson and co. will pole vault over that line. A cab tears through Indian streets, the real bustle outside clashing with the calmly horizontal movement orchestrated inside the vehicle, which is decorated enough to be a set but not so outlandish that you could not expect to see a similar cab interior if you looked in the right car in New York City. The cab's passenger is Bill Murray, racing toward a train station. He arrives too late, and as he lumbers toward the departing train bearing the film's title we know he won't make it. Then a younger man, played by Adrien Brody, runs past, also late, but he makes it as Murray looks on helplessly.

It's a sly gag, Anderson leaving behind his bread and butter, Murray, forcing the actor out of his picture. Perhaps the director felt he said all he could with Murray, having made him by some degree the most versatile player in his recurring casts, employing him in radically different contexts across their three collaborations where other actors generally riffed around the same type of character. By abandoning Murray at the station, Anderson must focus fully on the exploits and feelings of his tried and true characters: spoiled, highly educated yet yearning elites. In so doing, the director makes a prolonged joke with a wry punchline but also sets up what will be his most personal film.

Brody's character, Peter, makes his way inside the train and finds his brothers, Jack and Francis (Owen Wilson). Francis, head bandaged from serious injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident, organized the trip as a reunion for the brothers, the first time they've seen each other since their father's funeral a year ago. Francis wants them to go on a spiritual journey through India to try to repair their relationship, using the supposed healing power of the country to provide clarity.

However, Anderson immediately calls the spirituality of the trip into question. The three brothers lug around their father's luggage, a blatant visual symbol but also a recurring gag in the sheer amount of crap dragged along for a journey to find oneself. The layout of the train itself adds to the absurdity of the white men's delusion: far from being exposed to the wide breadth of India and its culture, they wander through the ridiculously tight corridors of the train, long enough to be Kubrickian but compressed, as if the Overlook Hotel, among its many other horrors, suddenly compacted its walls to crush its residents. One person walking through the lanes has to turn sideways; when multiple people attempt to navigate them at the same time, as they do frequently, these hallways become quagmires of frustrated limbs scraping against one another. Francis plans out a micromanaged itinerary of their enlightenment, and the brothers stare at that as India passes them by outside their window.

Naturally, being cooped up in a cabin the whole time does not inspire bonding but hostility, and soon the brothers reveal why they drifted apart in the first place. Peter uses all his father's effects, such as his razor and glasses (even using a prescription that doesn't fit Peter's own), because he feels he was dad's "favorite." Francis aligns with their mother by controlling every aspect of the trip, even ordering food for his brothers, whose resentment is only heightened by the fact that he always guesses exactly what they want. Jack, the runt, sits back and displays a Machiavellian edge, pitting the other two against each other (though this is a trait shared by both Francis and Peter).

Upon seeing the film in 2007, I fatally misunderstood the satire at work in Anderson's construction, taking the racism and ignorance of his characters at face value and fussing over the fussy design. Of course, Anderson tackles that same racism and clueless cultural appropriation, and if his satire lacks bark in its careful compositions and flatline comedy, its bite still stings. The Chief Steward (Waris Ahluwalia), looking like the Western image of an Indian man with his turban and thick beard but speaking in perfect, Western-trained English, politely asks the puffing brothers not to smoke in their cabin, and when he leaves the room they immediately lower their window and continue to smoke as if defying their father. In the dining cart, they each take out medication they bought from vendors without prescriptions and pass around painkillers as if pills and drops were a part of Indian cuisine to be shared among the table.

In every instance, the culture of India is ignored and everything turned to what feels convenient for the boys. They even get annoyed with listening to other languages: Peter chastises a German couple for chattering in their language while he tries to converse in English with his brothers. How does the staff feel, one wonders, to listen to all these shallow invaders all day, and to have to speak their languages because it is somehow incumbent on the visited nation to cater entirely to the visitors? Where other films would highlight the language barrier, Anderson depicts nearly every native character speaking English. They've managed to twist everything to their comfort, even the spoken words of others.

And yet, they cannot enjoy that comfort, and they might share more than they realize with some of the locals. Jack, still reeling from his ex's visit in Paris, turns in his sadness to the beautiful "sweet lime" girl, Rita (Amara Karan), who seems to get out her own pain over a failing relationship in sex with the American. With her British accent (Karan is English), Rita does not seem to fit in either with the Western or Eastern passengers, and when the brothers' fighting eventually gets them kicked off the train, her tears suggest she too wanted something out of the meaningless tryst they shared. When Jack flippantly says, "Thanks for using me," the cynicism in his voice cannot belie genuine gratitude, even if neither came close to finding themselves through sex.

Getting thrown off the Darjeeling Limited proves the turning point for the brothers. Free of their yellow and blue cage, the brothers must finally come to terms with each other, and the lack of iron and glass allows them to finally experience India as a traveler instead of a tourist. Anderson's gradual pacing allows him to gently deepen these characters, always orbiting them, getting a bit closer with each gravitational shift. Being out in the desert ekes out information from them in bits too small, too casually tossed-off, to be considered exposition. The artificial yellow of the interiors give way to the genuine yellow rays of the sun, which in comparison do not seem as oppressive as the golden hues of hotels and train compartments despite the men wandering a desert. It brings warmth that spreads through the men, who apologize and begin to consider each other instead of scheming around the other two.

Anderson's eye for detail and borderline fetishistic view of objects has never served him better. More than any of his other films, The Darjeeling Limited concerns letting go of all those immaculate trinkets and accessories, and Anderson can turn anything from a comic prop to a vital symbol on a dime: Francis, the one most absorbed with the idea of the spiritual journey, walks around a bazaar in $3,000 loafers, and when a poor street urchin steals one he can only fume at being ripped off. He keeps the other shoe on but replaces the stolen loafer with an Indian shoe, splitting his fashion between West and East -- Jack likewise starts wearing an Indian shirt under his robe. The brothers' slow reconciliation is contrasted with the actual stakes of three young brothers on a capsized raft in a raging river. Freed from their own petty squabbling for a moment, the grown men rush into the water to save the boys, and the outcome drastically changes the men by finally introducing them fully to the country they bypassed with all the fluidity of Anderson's camera.

The more ingrained the Whitman family becomes in India, the more Anderson borrows music from the India-set films of Merchant Ivory and Indian master Satyajit Ray. Filmic reference have always been a part of Anderson's repertoire -- everything he's done up to an including Hotel Chevalier heavily incorporates the French New Wave -- but this being the director's most inherently cinematic movie, the references here take on a grander importance. Anderson acknowledges that he knows India only through film, either from films set there or the film that brought him to the country to make it, and he traces his way to Indian culture through film the way the Whitman brothers eventually acclimate to the world around them through rejecting their own objects and incorporating those of their surroundings.

Anderson's references extend to the self: that opening usage of Bill Murray clearly relies on one's prior knowledge to the director's films and the roles Murray has played in them. In a shop bathroom, Wilson cuts the bandages off his face in a grim reversal of his brother Luke's actions in The Royal Tenenbaums: both stand in front of a mirror to shave, but Luke's character shaved then inflicted his wounds, while Owen's Francis must remove the bandages of his self-injury to cut his stubble. (It also makes for disturbing prescience in light of Wilson's subsequent suicide attempt.) Anderson even works Hotel Chevalier into the film, not only in its larger-yet-smaller recreation of the short's mise-en-scène (the bigger yet more cramped train, blue/yellow palette, deadpan comic agony) but in its outright quotation of lines. Jack spends the film constructing a short story and uses lines and details from his meeting with his ex, and though his brothers see right through it, he denies the story is autobiographical. When he finally acknowledges this, he matures, suggesting that reflexivity is not a trick if one addresses it directly and seeks to genuinely learn from it.*

None of the director's other films so fully displays Anderson's ability to evoke gentle emotion and growth from broad technical skill. His slow-motion shots, occasionally twee elsewhere, are judiciously used here, always communicating exactly where the picture and its characters are at that second, be it the smug, self-absorbed look on Peter's face at the start of the film when he makes his train and does not have to stay and experience India to the obvious but raucous metaphor of the heavy baggage being left behind at the end so the brothers can catch their next train. The primary color scheme is bright and childlike, but the more blue and yellow bleed into each other and red begins to seep in, the more complex the film seems to get. Even the detours into slapstick, such as the fight that gets the brothers thrown off the Darjeeling Limited or the flashback of them trying to pick up their father's broken car on the way to his funeral, dig beneath broad comedy to expose something about the three men and their stunted inability to cope with each other. Though not a talky bunch, they love to interrupt each other or bury their feelings by oversimplifying their predicament in terse but vague language. As with Hotel Chevalier, only when they (including their flaky mom, played by a striking Anjelica Huston) shut up and just look at each other and the world around them do they finally gain some understanding. They see their pain reflected in the others, and that allows the healing to begin.

*Anderson's chat with James Ivory on DVD shows that film reference is not unique to the modern upstarts: all artists think through other art, and Ivory recollects every film Anderson took his music from with fondness, as if remembering an old flame. He too sees the purpose of incorporating old cinema into the new.


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