Thursday, January 24, 2008

Darjeeling Limited, a film by Wes Anderson (2007)

In some quarters, going on a pilgrimage to India to find oneself is a still a big deal. For others, it is more about the drugs and for yet others, it is about the shopping. Wes Anderson, who seems to delight in making slightly off-kilter movies, combines all three motivations, but gives them an ironic twist. The three Whitman brothers have not seen each other for a year, not since their father's funeral, and they all have stuff, important stuff, happening. Who knows how long it is since they last saw their mother; Francis (Owen Wilson), who just has to be the oldest brother, has had to hire a private detective to find her. I don't know how he convinces them, but Francis then organises his brothers into taking a trip on the so-called Darjeeling Limited, a train that will take them for a six day journey across India, without really telling them what they're doing it for. He has meticulously organised his path to enlightenment, down to the point of bringing his personal assistant along to create daily plans, with every minute planned; multiple visits to spiritual places is the key ingredient in their enlightenment. As they go, they take a variety of prescription drugs and buy some rather peculiar objects - such as a poisonous snake. It becomes clear that these are rich guys - one is wearing $3000 shoes, and they fight over a $6,000 belt - products so ridiculously priced that I expect they are being mocked.

But at the same time, there is something quite important going on: their familial relations have been fractured, they insist on keeping secrets from each other - one brother would often reveal something to another while the third was absent, with instructions "don't tell him", but he always would. In this way, their stories are gradually revealed (e.g. that Peter (Adrian Brody) is about to have a baby (and thinking of leaving his wife) or that Jack (Jason Schwartzman) is more than a little obsessed with a girl he dumped a fair while ago (there is a connected short movie called Hotel Chevalier which I saw with The Darjeeling Limited - it was even credited as being Part One of it, but apparently not all theatres are showing it). Despite themselves, you might say, they are getting the proclaimed benefits of a trip to India.

I am still a little confused as to where the trip started from - maybe Calcutta, but if so I don't know why it would take six days (I did Mumbai to Calcutta in three, and their journey was to Udaipur). Since seeing the trip was my main reason for watching this movie, I was a little disappointed that they were thrown off the train after about a day - bringing the poisonous snake on board was a bit much for the train manager, but he relented; then the brothers fought and that was too much - but it was a vital stage in their development. While they were on the train, there was a kind of Lost in Translation feel to their voyage. Oddly enough,the English spoken by the train staff bore no signs of being Indian English - Rita's sounded very posh (and it turns out she was played by an actress born in England who went to Oxford, who seems to have been asked to speak in her own accent).

There is an aura of inauthenticity over the entire venture until they find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere, forced to haul an amazing amount of luggage (all stamped with their dead father's initials) to wherever they might be going. Going "off script" as it were seems to be the making of them, when
they get involved in a local village's life (with no language in common).

Of course, Francis's ultimate objective all along has been to be reunited with their mother, who has become some sort of nun. She seems to be a character straight out of Dickens' Bleak House - the woman so concerned with the plight of starving children in Africa that she fails to attend to, or even notice, her own family and how much they need her. Even when they make this huge trip across India to see her, mum is not very motherly. No matter - the trip seems to work its magic on the brothers so that they can now have functional relationships. As they returned to the East on the Bengal Lancer, I was intrigued by the fact that the train staff were now speaking in heavily accented English. I did think there was a certain triteness to the end: with enlightenment comes a release from worldly possessions: these guys are running so hard for their train, they have to discard their luggage, or should I say baggage, to avoid missing it. And thus they symbolically divest themselves of whatever power their dead father may have had over them.



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