Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) takes up where The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) left off, with a similar group of characters (differently named) and many of the same actors. It's another Wes Anderson story about a lovably depressive and dysfunctional family. The father died in an accident a year before the story begins. The mother has retreated to a monastery on a mountain top in India. Three brothers—Francis, Peter, and Jack Whitman—haven't spoken since the funeral. They unite for a "spiritual journey" that will eventually take them to their mother. They leave a moody sister back home. Angelica Huston, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and others from the Tenenbaums film make appearances here. Adrian Brody also appears as one of the brothers.

Much of the film takes place on a train making its slow and painful way across the Indian landscape. We spend a lot of time watching the brothers interact in their train compartment and outside the train as well. Francis , who organized the trip, is the controlling brother who passes out agendas for their trip. He tells his brothers where to sleep, asks to keep their passports, suggests what they may say and do. They chafe against his low-key controlling nature.

A lot of nothing happens. If you need a firmly defined plot, if you expect characters who confront specific challenges and difficulties, this film won't work for you. If you're comfortable with slowly developing scenes in which three unexpressive and off-kilter characters spend a lot of time walking around, saying a few words, smoking cigarettes or chugging cough syrup, having vague disagreements, bumping into one another, then this film will work.

The plot, such as it is, is considerably less obvious than it was in Tenenbaums or in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). For me, the lack of a plot, the formlessness, is the film's charm. It's difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional group of individuals than these three brothers. It's difficult to imagine their surviving in the real world. Yet we identify with them. Their dysfunctional natures are ones we connect with our own.

A key moment comes when the brothers see three boys on a raft use a rope to try to pull their way across a river. Their raft overturns and the boys fall in the water. The three brothers spring into action, each of them going after one of the struggling boys. Two of the boys are rescued, but one is swept away and killed. The brothers take the surviving boys and their dead brother to their home village. They take part in the funeral for the dead boy. This experience somehow becomes the basis of a transformation, though it is difficult to see exactly what the transformation is.

The brothers at last reach a kind of understanding with one another when they meet their mother at the mountain retreat. The conclusion of this film is similar to that in The Life Aquatic. You know something has happened, but you're not exactly sure what. In The Life Aquatic, Zissou has lost his son and in what amounts to a communal mourning he and his crew take their submarine deep into the ocean in search of the fabled jaguar shark. Their encounter with the shark is a kind of emotional resolution. In Darjeeling perhaps it is the young boy's death, and the brothers' participation in his funeral, that prepares them for their reunion with their mother, but the focus of the film's conclusion is vague, and you know only that the film is approaching an end because in some indefinable way it feels that way. The presence of a man-eating tiger nearby may also be involved, though we never encounter it. We only hear about it.

India provides an unconventional backdrop. The problems the brothers have with one another have little to do with the setting. But India provides an unusual kind of visual and cultural counterpoint to the self-absorbed brothers. They make little notice of the people and countryside around them. One of them has a brief encounter with a hostess in her compartment. Another has difficulties with the conductor, who finally throws the brothers off the train. He's especially upset when he discovers that one of them is carrying with him a poisonous snake—for reasons never explained. He forbids them to smoke on the train, and they keep ignoring him.

The death of the boy in the river is a tragic, disturbing moment. But the film underplays the episode in a flat, unsentimental, almost cinematically comatose way. We can tell only that the boy's father is grief-stricken. One might argue that the inexpressive reaction of the brothers constitutes in itself some kind of reaction. Or one might argue that their self-absorption is merely that—self-absorption, cultural narcissism, beyond which they cannot see.

I enjoyed this film, but Anderson has carried his lovable, dysfunctional families about as far as they can go.

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