The Darjeeling Limited: Voyage to India

On Film / Essays — Oct 12, 2010

One

Every movie is two stories: the one it tells and the one that remains to be told about it by those involved in its creation. These two narratives converge in a certain current of the cinema of the past fifty years. Just as modernist painting bears the traces of the painter’s movements and presence, and modernist literature has moved toward the first-person essay, the autobiography, and the diary, so the strain of modernist filmmaking that was launched with the French New Wave has integrated the filmmaker’s methods with the movie itself, and turned fictions into documentaries about their making.

Coming off the unwieldy and expensive production of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—which dramatized the gap between the experience of filmmaking and its results—Wes Anderson sought to make his next film, The Darjeeling Limited, in a way that was more closely tied to immediate experience, especially his own. The result is a serious comedy that reflects the modernism of the New Wave and also encompasses other advanced cinematic traditions. When I first saw it, in a screening before its New York Film Festival premiere in 2007, it seemed to me to be a first-person catalog of modernisms, one that both cast a strong retrospective light on Anderson’s earlier work and would be a turning point in his career.

The Darjeeling Limited tells the story of the three Whitman brothers, young men in their late twenties to midthirties: Francis (Owen Wilson), an imperious businessman and the ringleader, who is heavily bandaged due to injuries su0ffered in a severe motorcycle accident; Peter (Adrien Brody), a regular guy and a married man who’s about to become a father; and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), a novelist who has lately been living in Paris. They haven’t seen one another since their father’s funeral a year ago, and haven’t seen their mother since even before that. Convened by Francis for an ostensible “spiritual journey” of fraternal reconciliation—the antic awkwardness of which becomes quickly evident—they embark on a train trip through India that, unbeknownst to Peter and Jack, Francis intends as a visit to their mother, whom he has traced (thanks to a private detective) to a convent in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Jack’s particular predicament sets the tone for the movie, and is established in a short prelude, Hotel Chevalier, that was conceived and made independently of the trip Anderson and his crew took to India but crucially informs that story. It’s set in a luxurious hotel room in Paris, to which Jack has fled to escape a troubled relationship with an unnamed girlfriend (Natalie Portman), who tracks him down there, pays him a romantic visit, and leaves him confused, distracted, and jealous. That brief encounter becomes the subject of a story Jack subsequently writes—one of many stories that he gives his brothers to read, and that run like a thread through their travels in India. Francis and Peter take Jack’s stories for memoirs, for contes à clef, and they praise him for the accuracy of his recollections of events they experienced together—while he insists that the characters are all fictional. Jack’s ultimate admission that his story actually recounts and records the amorous interlude of Hotel Chevalier parallels Anderson’s own approach to this project.

Like all of Anderson’s works, The Darjeeling Limited offers highly aestheticized settings, but this film, unlike the others, seems to derive much of its stylization not from art direction but from a documentary-like attentiveness to preexisting locations. This can be seen, for instance, in a shot that shows the three brothers walking in a city during a stopover on their train trip, approaching a temple that Francis wants them to visit; it’s a setup that coaxes the appearance of a vast and choreographed studio crowd scene from a canny interaction with the unforeseeable and the incidental. The three men are seen in a wide view, from a high and facing angle, arriving in a crowded marketplace. The camera zooms in on all of them, then pans with Francis as he takes off on a most unspiritual search for a power adapter, then to Peter as he shops for shoes being sold by a street vendor, then to Jack, who is captivated by another merchant’s display of pepper spray, before finally tilting to show a sign advertising snakes for sale. Anderson’s India seems as aestheticized, as distinctively Andersonian, as if he had been able to art-direct the entire country to his rarefied specifications. But his overtly documentary methods suggest that his aesthetic is less his own idiosyncratic invention than a fundamental sympathy with the realities he found and that he simply had the perspicacity and sensitivity to capture on film.

While doing research for a profile of Anderson for the New Yorker in 2009, I asked the filmmaker and several of the film’s principals about this unusual blend of high visual stylization and spontaneous responses to unplanned events. I was surprised to learn that Anderson’s approach to his subject was both documentary and personal from the outset. He had conceived of the film while staying in Paris with Schwartzman in 2005; the two strolled through the city at night, walking the actor’s dog and talking, and Anderson had the idea that the stories and personal matters under discussion would make for a good film. Schwartzman recalled Anderson telling him, “I think we should write a movie about three brothers in India. That’s kind of all I have now, but the three of us will get together every night and we’ll tell our stories. It will be the most personal thing we could possibly make—let’s try to make it even too personal.” The actor continued, “We’d work all day long and go to a restaurant or sit in a café every night until twelve, one in the morning, just filling notebooks with ideas.” Anderson then brought Roman Coppola in on the script as well. After a year and a half of writing—a process that, for a while, included daily four-hour conference calls—Anderson said, “I think we have to go to India,” and the trio of writers, along with Anderson’s friends Waris Ahluwalia (whose family is from India and who, in the film, plays the train’s conductor) and Alice Bamford (who would also work on the film), took a one-way trip, continuing to write together as they traveled and incorporating into the script the locations they visited and the experiences they had.

Anderson wanted to make a film that would be small-scale, one that would bypass the practical encumbrances of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic, in which the elaborate style and visual precision were the work of large crews and increasingly high budgets. The freewheeling, intimate conception of the film’s script was to be matched by the approach to the production, as Schwartzman recalled: “Wes not only pitched a rough idea for a movie, he also pitched a rough idea of how he’d like to make the movie, which was: ‘I want to do a movie with no trailers; all the actors do their own makeup; we shoot it in the streets, without blocking off streets. I don’t want it to be a big production. I don’t want actors wandering away and sitting in their trailers for thirty minutes. I want everyone to stay on set. I want it to be like a student film, in terms of how many people would be on set.’ And he made the movie like that. Our suits were prewired with our microphones in them; actors did their own hair and makeup—we didn’t really wear any makeup except for Owen [because of his character’s bandages, cuts, and bruises]—where we were living.” As for the spontaneity of the acting style, Schwartzman said: “There was no improvisation, but when we were shooting on real live streets, our bodies were improvising. We’d be walking down the street saying the same lines, but in take five a woman walks by holding food, so we’d have to move and make way for her while we were talking. In take seven, we were talking and a motorcycle goes through. We were just mixed in with life.”

Anderson even integrated the film’s most art-directed element—the train of the title—into the practicalities of life in India. For the purposes of the shoot, Anderson actually acquired an Indian train and had it renovated to his specifications; it was both decorated in an impeccably whimsical high style and optimized for shooting (it featured duplicate sets in different cars, on opposite sides of the train, to allow a scene to be shot both in the morning and the afternoon). The train, filled with cast and crew, actually ran—according to a schedule—on tracks belonging to India’s national railway (though it didn’t take passengers). As the principals noted, nobody could come late to the set, because the set wouldn’t be there. The train sometimes came to a halt between stations (as seen in the film) due to military-transport crossings and other unplanned events.

Between the personal reminiscences with which Anderson, Schwartzman, and Coppola infused the story, the shared trip to India around which it was built, the intermingling of the action with local contingencies, and the wealth of artistic and cinematic references from his own experience, Anderson turned The Darjeeling Limited into a virtual archive of the physical and intellectual process of its production.

Two

“It’s really Satyajit Ray, [Jean Renoir’s] The River, and Husbands,” Anderson told me. “You know, Husbands, there’s the three guys, dressed in their suits, and at a certain point, they say, ‘Let’s go to England.’ And they’re all in the moment—they’re all on the cusp of some kind of meltdown, and trying to figure out how they’re going to continue in their lives, and, you know, Jason and Roman and I watched Husbands together, and we really felt connected to it.”

When the history of the generation of Hollywood filmmakers now in their thirties and forties is written, a key theme will be the influence of John Cassavetes on their work. Raised on independent and foreign films as well as Hollywood productions, and born too late for old-school prejudices regarding dramatic compression and naturalistic acting, they find inspiration in the emotional intensity of Cassavetes’ work, the blend of high jinks and rage, of vulnerability and opacity, and in the director’s personal investment in films that reflect his life and history, with his familylike stock cast and his actual family, even to the extent of filming in his house.

The three characters (and actors) at the heart of Husbands are possessed by eruptive, violent, impulsive, and raucous physical energy; they vociferate with frenetic, exuberant, uninhibited power; and they speak or sing or dance or leap or roughhouse in response to every scintilla of emotional fluctuation. In The Darjeeling Limited, the overt range of expression is much more tightly controlled, the gestures far more restrained, the dialogue more understatedly direct or quietly evasive, and—crucially—the material world far more eloquent in its elements of style and design than in Cassavetes’ film. It shows the influence of Cassavetes in its comic dramatization of the trials of male bonding and the struggle for emotional integrity, but where Cassavetes captures the tooth-and-nail wildness of first-generation Americans clawing their way into the middle class, Anderson’s film recalls an older, more disciplined, although no less self-excoriating, tradition—the WASP modernism exemplified by Ernest Hemingway and Howard Hawks.

Three

The Whitmans come from money. The young men travel with the Louis Vuitton suitcases they’ve inherited from their father (in fact, ones specially made by Marc Jacobs, featuring colorful intaglios of animals by Anderson’s brother Eric); they recall his Porsche, which they wanted to drive to his funeral (an episode that Jack turns into one of his short stories). Francis Whitman is fabulously wealthy—he claims to wear three-thousand-dollar shoes and a four-thousand-dollar belt, and he has a personal assistant travel with him on the journey through India. Jack, a published novelist, hasn’t been back to the United States in a year, and has been a long-term resident of the fabulously plush Hotel Chevalier.

Material things matter a lot to the Whitmans, even to Peter, who seems to live a more conventional, middle-class life—and who, to the dismay of his brothers, wears their father’s glasses, carries their father’s keys, and uses their father’s razor (and, unlike his brothers, was present at the time of their father’s death). Physical objects, from the luggage to the paternal relics to minor religious fetishes to snack foods to the small clay pots made by Peter’s wife, take on an outsize importance in the story; no mere symbols, they embody passions, and the three brothers’ aestheticism in their appreciation of these objects’ virtual humanity—the sophisticated craftsmanship that goes into them, and the refined pleasure that they offer—is a crucial aspect of the movie’s morality.

With his love of physical adventure, his aversion to bathos, his emotional understatement, and his dandyish, decorative sensibility, Anderson is clearly an heir to Hemingway and Hawks—to the Hemingway who, when in Paris, had Louis Vuitton make him a custom set of suitcases, and whose style of dress was so famous that Vanity Fair made a paper doll of him with a variety of outfits, and who was described in a 1950 New Yorker profile by Lillian Ross as wearing “a red plaid wool shirt, a figured wool necktie, a tan wool sweater-vest, a brown tweed jacket tight across the back and with sleeves too short for his arms, gray flannel slacks, Argyle socks, and loafers”; and to the Hawks who was a pioneering airplane pilot and race-car driver, who rode horses and motorcycles and also played croquet and lived in an exquisitely furnished house, and who, as his biographer Todd McCarthy writes, “could expertly copy any piece of furniture. His innate taste told him how to dress himself, and his advice helped his second wife become the best-dressed woman in the United States.”

This strain of modernism—which links physical courage with stylization, luxury, and connoisseurship—keeps dark and teeming emotional life from being paraded vainly or expressed uninhibitedly (whereby it could be misunderstood as showboating and, in any case, could never match the vastness of the emotion), and reserves it for the subtle discernment and implicit understanding of kindred aristocrats of the greater and finer feelings. In a tender, agonized scene in The Darjeeling Limited showing the three brothers at an exquisitely appointed funeral in a small Indian village, Anderson suggests the pain, the anguish, and the horror that dazzling ornament and formalized ritual serve to mask and—to the sensitive observer—signify.

As for the appreciation of money: as Norman Mailer said in a 1955 interview, “Money is one of the things which gives energy to people.” Throughout his career, Anderson has dramatized the prospects for adventure that are opened by money—as well as the burdens and responsibilities that come with such power. The Whitman family’s stories are sad ones, of loneliness and loss, estrangement and fear, death and near death, vanity and honor, jealousy and self-hatred. Like Anderson’s other films, The Darjeeling Limited is a comedy, and one in which the comedy deflects bathos (as in the works of Hawks). But in The Darjeeling Limited, the comedy is also distinctly satirical, with its barbs aimed at deflating the vanity, obliviousness, and irresponsibility of those who bear that power.

More than any of Anderson’s first five films, The Darjeeling Limited shows his universe to be that of a conservative avant-garde, a refined aesthetic that conveys a severe ethical code in which a failure of personal responsibility or of sensitivity is also a lapse in taste. Anderson didn’t fight in wars and didn’t go looking for danger, but death and danger are nonetheless ambient in the intrepid high-wire intensity of the sensitive, blithely daring souls he depicts, in their exquisite and tormented varieties of love, their stringent code of honor, their absence of guilt but crushing burden of shame, and their fierce sense of responsibility to desire and pleasure. For Anderson, the price of emotional commitment—and of aesthetic refinement—is painfully high; his characters’ spirited and stylish adventures, though filled with flamboyant capers and decadent delights, are played for mortal stakes. The brothers’ goofy, childlike esprit de corps reveals authentically epic underpinnings—and, in revealing them, exposes the storyteller’s own far-ranging quest for his own identity.