This is another case in which I began to write a blog post about The Darjeeling Limited and failed to follow through. If anyone who knows jack about film would like to start a discussion, I would invite that. Life Aquatic made me mad to the point where I wasn’t even sure how to engage with the film in order to write about it rationally. Darjeeling Limited didn’t make me as mad, but I find it to be a pretty problematic film. Here we go!
Oh wait, fake out. A true Anderson fan knows that one must begin with the short film at Darjeeling‘s beginning, Hotel Chevalier. I wrote the following two paragraphs long ago and they are full of bile the color of Natalie Portman’s bathrobe:
First, I should probably say that I really don’t like Natalie Portman. I don’t know what it is about her…probably that she’s a Zionist and Black Swan totally sucked and it’s too hard to tell if she was any good in it because her part was so awful. (Also, does she use his toothbrush? Gross.) Her line, “If we fuck, I’m gonna feel like shit tomorrow” sounded as ludicrous as Max Fischer in Rushmore saying of Scottish bully Buchan, “I’m gonna bust a cap in his ass.” Except it’s not meant to be ludicrous.
It’s hard to deal with Wes Anderson when you’re in a bad mood. Or at least, it’s hard to deal with Hotel Chevalier when you’re in a bad mood. I kept thinking that “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)” might be one of the most tedious songs to sit through ever. And to have to endure it more than once, with the slow motion, is almost unbearable. I seriously don’t care what’s going on.
Well, to be fair, I’ve never been one for love stories and this is no different. I still probably wouldn’t care what’s going on; I’m trusting myself to have been listening for things unspoken by Schwartzman and Portman. It’s not as though I need to be beaten over the head with exposition, but there was neither enough story nor context to maintain my interest for the duration of this very short film. And it adds very little to Darjeeling Limited, in my opinion.
Darjeeling Limited is about the three Whitman brothers—Jack (Jason Schwartzmann looking like Ringo Starr), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Peter (Adrien Brody)—journeying by train across India after not speaking for a year. Francis, who has recently had a near-death experience, brings the three back together for a spiritual journey across India by train. They are also struggling to cope with the death of their father. They constantly squabble over their father’s possessions, including his luggage—yes, they’re dealing with their father’s literal baggage in case you missed the heavy-handed metaphor. (I must admit, though, that the scenes of the Whitman brothers running for the train in slow-motion are some of my favorite instances of Anderson’s use.)
As an Anderson film, it’s not one of my favorites. It has my beloved familial dissolution from The Royal Tenenbaums, but the writing seems a little choppier. I’m not convinced Wes Anderson is great for physical comedy, so the scene with the mace felt disruptively silly to me. Without someone like Gene Hackman or Bill Murray to take the edge off, I fear it becomes a little too self-serious. So it pushes toward both ends of that spectrum at certain times and it just didn’t click for me. The Whitman brothers’ squabbling over any piece of their father’s estate got dull after a while; maybe my notes aren’t good enough, but I felt like there wasn’t enough development done there to make me care.
I’m torn on this movie. On the one hand, the film veers away from falling too hard into the trap of having three Americans magically reach enlightenment because they visit the mystical Orient. On the other hand, the fact that the plot finally resolves after they spend some quality time with their mother (Anjelica Houston) made me wonder why, then, the film story necessitated the South Asian setting. Remember, too, that the Whitmans’ mother is living in India as a Catholic nun. Her mission is not to assimilate to India, and for what good her mission likely provides the children it serves, she is still there as a vessel of Western religion.
I think it’s pretty telling, too, that after the Whitman brothers’ romp around India, their own mother soothes their angst. India is only the film’s setting—to the point where both the film and the characters treat its people like props. The drowned Indian boy is one such prop. It is odious enough when Peter says “I didn’t save mine” as though he’s mucked up another one of Francis’s kooky spiritual rites. But then the scene of the child’s funeral cuts to their own father’s funeral in American the previous year. There’s also the issue of Rita, who works on the train. Jack says, “I want that stewardess.” Francis calls her “Sweet Lime” instead of remembering her name. In other words, their’s an alternation between the Whitman brothers speaking of India in possessive terms and them using its apparently inherent exoticism to find answers to their own troubles.
I don’t find their hapless trudge through the Mysterious East to be droll or charming. There are countless examples of lines that make Edward Said turn over in his grave, such as ” I love the way this country smells. I’ll never forget it. It’s kind of spicy,” “I love it here. These people are beautiful,” or “did you fuck that Indian girl?” There’s one scene where one of the brothers observes that a group of nearby locals are playing cricket with a tennis ball! How ludicrous! Cricket with a tennis ball? YOU’RE BEING INDIAN WRONG, INDIANS. And of course, Jack says “it’s gotta be against his religion” when they wonder whether the steward killed a snake. Why didn’t he just pull out a magic flute and charm that bitch? It’s here where Anderson’s blurring of the line between dislikable and likable characters gets too gross for me: thrown into the mix is an ugly history of India’s past as an English colony. I first saw this movie around the time I’d been reading A Passage to India, which no doubt spurred my disgust.
The Darjeeling Limited more than other Anderson films, has drawn a lot of criticism for its treatment of race and issues of colonialism. In the interest of not repeating these points, I provide links here, here, and here, plus a counterpoint here. I agree more with the first three than with the last. I will agree that I don’t see Margaret Yang as a rebound character for Max Fischer (their courtship takes time, and she is set up to be very well suited for him), and I also think Henry Sherman makes Royal Tennebaum look like an asshole. What troubles me about Darjeeling Limited is that these three white men of privilege use India as a backdrop for spiritual awakening, but they don’t change that much by the film’s end. I didn’t expect them to become yogis or anything, and they do drop their father’s baggage. I just don’t understand why they needed to come to India to accomplish this closure. It’s something that ruins the film for me.
Soundtrack Favorite Pick: “Play with Fire” – The Rolling Stones
Like I said, it’s been a while since I’ve dealt with the proper postcolonial terminology and I don’t have the literature at my fingertips, so please let me know!