This is my second write-up of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. You can read my older review here. What is below isn't actually a legit review, or even a finished piece. These are my rough notes for an introduction I made last night before a screening of the movie, complete with "Hotel Chevalier," as part of the NW Film Center's "Wes's World: Wes Anderson and his Influences" festival. It features some old ideas cribbed from my previous write-up, and some new ones based on my re-watching the film. The piece is still a bit ragged, as it was just meant to act as a guide for while I talked, so there are likely some typos; each time you encounter one, imagine me saying...
The Darjeeling Limited has become the default Wes Anderson movie that no one cares about. You bring it up, everyone’s got an opinion about it.
To me, it’s one of the more interesting and challenging of his movies. It’s a eulogy for the Anderson movies that came before it, ending one phase of his career and setting the stage for the next.
As Marc Mohan said last week introducing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [review], the filmography of Wes Anderson is almost like one giant film, the way Susan Sontag described the 1960s work of Jean-Luc Godard. It’s all connected, and if not literally one volume to the next, it’s at least a shared universe. Thus, there are treads and characters that connect: to all of his other movies. You have Max Fischer, Richie Tenenbaum, maybe a little Eli Cash.
You have Steve Zissou, being left behind, almost like a phantom. To my way of thinking, the bit part Bill Murray plays here is actually their father, whose passing has prompted the journey the three brothers at the center of the movie are taking.
In essence, the father figure is dead. It’s time to move on in search of the next thing. This makes for one of the more emotionally raw of Anderson’s films. It wears its heart on its sleeve.
Which means it gets personal in ways Anderson movies haven’t before. There are three writers behind this: Wes Anderson, his filmmaking compatriot Roman Coppola, and actor Jason Schwartzman, who is also Roman’s cousin. Each writer has created an avatar for himself in the three brothers in the movie, and infused their mannerisms and fetishes with coded symbolism.
In fact, the whole movie, like much of Anderson’s work, has kind of a secret code that you have to break. The filmmaker is often accused of being precious, but every detail matters. He is precious in that he is like a little kid trying to build what he sees in his imagination, and he cares deeply about getting it right.
Owen Wilson plays Francis, the eldest, and he serves as a stand-in for Wes Anderson. Francis is the beleaguered ringleader, unappreciated and beaten-up--which was probably how Wes felt following the tepid reception to The Life Aquatic. Like his creator, Francis also wants to get it right. He wants to contain the chaos, but finds he can’t. You can’t manufacture a spiritual journey. He tells his brothers to “say yes to everything,” but then hands them an itinerary.
Jason Schwartzman plays Jack, and in doing so represents himself: the arty romantic looking to stake a claim.
I’m glad they are including the prologue of “Hotel Chevalier” because Darjeeling is really incomplete without it. Particularly in regards to Jack. He is essentially Max Fischer looking to be grow up and be taken seriously, stuck in a fugue at a time where the fictions he has created have become too real and have overtaken him.
Look around his hotel room, you’ll see he has essentially built himself a replica of his childhood bedroom, a la Edward Appleby, the dead romantic figure in Rushmore. [review] There are toy cars, art pieces, and objects that are important to him. He’s locked away, indulging in books and movies.
He’s watching Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 on the TV. In that film, William Holden’s character is like the Max Fischer of the POW camps: he has the whole place wired. He built a racetrack and runs mice on them. He has a telescope for looking at the women in the neighbor camp. He is both separate and apart.
You also might spot a Nancy Mitford book on his bed. It’s a twofer, one of my favorites, the combined The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Mitford is a bit like F. Scott Fitzgerald as a woman, known for beautiful prose and writing thinly veiled fictions about her and her sisters; Jack does the same about him and his brothers. No matter how much he claims it’s all made up.
Things go wonky for Jack in his exile when that his estranged lover--played by Natalie Portman--shows up unannounced and invades his space. Bad for him, lucky for us, in that it’s easily the sexiest a Wes Anderson movie has ever gotten. But Natalie Portman also utters the first of many portents in Darjeeling: “Don’t you think it’s time you go home?” He can’t escape his past any more than he can escape her.
“Hotel Chevalier” ends with a song by Peter Sarstedt, “Where Do You Go To My Lovely,” which is the most Wes Anderson of songs. It’s all references--Marlene Dietrich, the Rolling Stones--using these superficial details to get into a lover’s head. There’s something so self-conscious about it, it’s hard not to think Anderson is toying with us. “Where Do You Go To” becomes Jack’s love theme.
Finally, we have the most complex character to decode: Roman Coppola, as represented by Adrien Brody. Peter is also trying to establish himself as his own man, and his real-life parallel maybe has the most to overcome in that regard. Roman Coppola is a film director himself, he made a movie called CQ many years back--about, surprise, a young filmmaker trying to avoid turning into a hack. His resume also includes a lot of second unit work for his famous father: Francis Ford Coppola.
Francis Coppola one of the more influential titans of the 1970s. He was surely an influence on Wes Anderson. The Conversation, the Godfather films [review], Apocalypse Now.
Keep that in mind when you observe Adrien Brody in Darjeeling: he is the one who keeps stealing his dead father’s clothes for himself. He wears the old man’s glasses, so as a metaphor is looking through his eyes, despite it being a different prescription than his own. As the offspring of a famous man, it’s hard to establish your own vision.
This carries over into the theme of fathers. I think it’s Peter, Brody’s character, who gives the best evidence that Bill Murray is their dead dad. Watch how he looks at the Bill Murray in that first scene, both when he passes him, and once he’s on the train.
Peter is also dealing with his own issues: he could the next Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou. His wife is pregnant, and he is running away. Sadly, later, he’ll be the one who fails in saving another child. Not a good omen.
The fact that Wes Anderson is trading some of his daddy issues to focus on mommy issues is kind of fascinating. Anjelica Huston as the mother in both Tenenbaums [review] and Zissou was still invested in what the men were doing, she’s the one who takes care of things, even reluctantly. Not this time. For the first time in Anderson, the mother has abandoned her post. (Not counting the late Mrs. Fischer.) Maybe in that sense the German women on the train are supposed to make us think of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. [review] She can’t help but get out of there, and you can’t blame her. She’s had enough.
Extending the Coppola comparison, for a second, and sticking with fathers and mothers: there is a journey here akin to Apocalypse Now. In looking for their mom, the boys are seeking the rogue who has gone native.
There is also Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of that film, where we see it was Roman Coppola’s mother, Eleanor, who kept the movie--and his father--on track when Francis Ford’s mad boyish adventure went off the tracks.
Also in Apocalypse Now, there is the threat of a tiger attack, which we have repeated here. Francis Ford Coppola himself was referencing William Blake: “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night; / What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
This maybe wasn’t intentional on Anderson’s, but if you were here for Shawn Levy’s introduction to Rushmore, these things extend back whether it’s planned or not. Shawn quoted Borges stating that artists create their own precedents, even if by osmosis or coincidence. And one of the major reasons for this series is to make these connections, we want to see how the themes all lock together.
I was struck watching this last night, actually, that the train porter serves as a kind of father figure, immediately usurping Owen Wilson’s authority the moment they step on his train. If we want to go a little silly, then that means Jack/Jason Schwartzman sleeping with the porter’s girlfriend has some Oedipal overtones. Not to mention Natalie Portman and Anjelica Huston have matching haircuts.
But that may be going to far. It’s still worth considering, thought, that Owen Wilson’s Francis might want to take over for his dad, but what we end up seeing is that he’s just like his mother. All his habits are from her. I like the line he says, “Did I raise us...kind of?” She won’t validate him, he’s hoping his brothers will.
Moving on from that...
The other important film connection to make here is to India. India provides Wes Anderson an opportunity. Where I think Darjeeling provides a bridge between the two phases of Anderson’s career is he steps outside of his own uncanny valley in away he hasn’t before. It’s his first time away from an entirely curated world.
We left the city in Steve Zissou, sure, but Zissou still lived in an imaginary landscape, one that he could control, it was his Life Aquatic.
In Darjeeling, while the characters still bear a stylistic connection to the Anderson aesthetic, they have been moved into a world that is beyond their control, where they don’t fit. While cinematically, it’s the India that the director saw in early Merchant-Ivory movies and Satyajit Ray, it still resembles something other than Anderson’s common landscape. The Darjeeling Limited both as narrative and as process is an adventure of displacement.
As I mentioned, Francis is trying to manufacture and manicure the spiritual experience, but it’s way to controlled for a legitimate epiphany. To the point that to have a real experience, the boys have to be thrown off the train and see life as it’s really being lived, away from the conveniences of privileged travel. It makes me think a little of Lost In Translation, [review] and Scarlett Johansson leaving the hotel where she’s been hiding and viewing Japanese life as an observant witness. (A film, of course, made by Roman Coppola’s extremely talented little sister.)
These guys are presented with a real awakening moment out at the river and in the remote village, but of course, they kind of miss it. Anderson makes the connection for them, he goes from one funeral back to another, letting us see the events prior to burying their father, but these guys are dense. They immediately fall back into their old tricks once they return to the city, and have no choice but to go back out again and finish what they started.
After this, we would see Anderson retreat back into his own environment, and even take it to new extremes. Moonrise Kingdom [review] and to a greater extent Grand Budapest Hotel [review] has moved him even further from reality. There is a kind of magical realism, a cinematic illusion a la Georges Méliès, that has taken over his material. It’s actually hinted at in this movie with the very obviously fake tiger. There’s a part of him that wants the illusion to appear as illusion
I don’t know if the poor reaction to Darjeeling inspired it, but there is almost a sense that Anderson decided to take his ball and go home. If we didn’t want him stepping out into a recognizable world, then he wasn’t going to. He would create his own. I imagine him sitting in his studio listening to the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and dreaming up this new fantasy life, untethered and unrestricted. It’s what’s made his latest films so fresh, but what also makes The Darjeeling Limited so effective. As they say, you have to leave before you can come back.