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Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited: Practically Perfect in Every Way

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Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited: Practically Perfect In Every Way

By Kevin Salveson


Five films into an extraordinary career, Wes Anderson and his writing partners have crafted a masterpiece. The Darjeeling Limited is a script so tight and well-written that it is, as one particular lilting English nanny might remark, "practically perfect in every way."  Here, unlike others in the Anderson cannon that get a lot of play (such as The Royal Tennenbaums), not a scene, shot, nor word is wasted (well, almost).


In that, Darjeeling Limited is similar in economy to Moonrise Kingdom.  But even better than Moonrise, there is even less in Darjeeling that works merely as a two-dimensional backdrop (as some of the characters did in that movie, even if they were effective backdrops) and there is more at stake than just the charming coming of age of a little boy  Here, it is all compact and yet everything remains fully organic and three dimensional, just as you want a handcarved rosewood box from India to be.


Travel broadens the mind.  Certainly, it seems to have worked wonders for the scriptwriters in the case of The Darjeeling Limited.  One can imagine the fun these three (Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola and Steve Schwartzman) had writing semi-autobiographically as they themselves traipsed across the continent on various trains, assistants in tow.  Well, who hasn't been a tourist in some new and exotic place, camera in hand, imagining that their eagle eye as an outsider might unlock the mysteries of the culture?  But these tourists are accomplished cinematic autuers and they did a great job balancing the outsider's viewpoint with humor and self-deprecation about the fact that they know it's a little awkward to cast a country as a character in your own personal drama.


But that's what these brothers do, deliberately.  Owen Wilson's character in fact treats India as enlightenment paint by numbers complete with a laminated itinerary.  His character as we get to know him is all surface and efficiency even as the second layer of his personality is manipulation. And, by the second third of the movie, we find that even that surface itself has some depth.  But we don't get to see beneath that surface in some ways until the very end of the movie when he removes his literal bandages.  That gradual revelation is key -- it allows us to first laugh at and yet also grow and experience the changes the characters go through on their explicit spiritual journey.  It keeps the film a comedy even as it is able to dip into the pathos involved.


Some have made a point that they feel that Anderson and company have exploited India, as if it was just another black booty dancer twerking its rump behind the bright white teeth of the blonde teen to lend credibility to the entertainment industry appropriation.  


But from the start, the movie takes a self-conscious bemusement at its own attempts to find meaning as a tourist in a foreign land.  Via the very touristy nature of the characters themselves, the film can hang its camera around its neck to make fun of the way typical tourists act but in the end it gets some good shots out of that old Polaroid as well.


I really don't think that The Darjeeling Limitedm exploits India as a country or mere backdrop. Rather, it seems to have a sincere though self-consciously Limited  --get it?-- appreciation of and interaction with the country. I think that Anderson and his crew attempt to balance the obvious --they are not Indian, they are tourists-- with a genuine respect for Indian culture, and the un-PC aspects of telling a story about oblivious travellers in an exotic land.  Their outrageous and callous western behaviour is handled with humour and acuity since it offers its own self-critique along the way (hell, they get kicked off the train itself-- they are rejects).


While there are a lot of interesting aspects to the film (especially the relationship with Rita, aka sweetlime, and the mutual exploitation that goes on between her and Steve Schwartzman's character), perhaps central to the whole film is the theme of how humans resolve emotional issues concerning death and loss.  Those issues are resolved by the various ways the characters actually enter more deeply into the culture of the India and interact with its people in very sincere (if still very obviously outsider-ish) ways, which is what makes the script so compact-- their epiphanies aren't forced by some deus ex machina, they come from the setting of the film itself in a neat way which parellels the brother's own lives and brings them down to earth.


 That's a hard trick to pull off for a comedy but Anderson does in a way that also allows the film to be more than a travelouge or exploitation of India. The brothers, rejected by Indian authorities, callous or oblivious to the culture and people around them, actually find themselves thrust deeper into that world in a way that in fact posits Indian culture as perhaps superior in its rituals without being fawning and allows the brothers to get what one could consider a much more true, deep and in fact enlightening view of the country.


As the brothers have missed their own father's funeral it is the indian boy's funeral which becomes the objective correlative of the father's.  They miss one they wanted to make, attend another they had not imagined.  Death is the theme of the movie.  Here is a death of someone they don't know, and yet it is powerful.  It is powerful not because it is "used as a backdrop" but because it is treated (apart from the walk to the car scene, a little excessive) sincerely.  


Suddenly, rare in a feature film, there are scenes of a nearly continuous ten minutes in length where there are few to no words even as a lot of action is taking place.  Anderson knows that to try and verbally rationalize it would be wrong for the usually talkative characters and for the scene.


Rather, the looks on the men's faces during those scenes are solemn even as their actions (standing quietly with them at the bus stop, etc) express gratitude towards the brothers.  This is the heart of the film's understanding and non-exploitation of Indian culture-- there are no rationalizations, it is not played for laughs or for curiosity, rather it comes down to scenes of just people expressing things that are perhaps universal.  Grief.  Shock. Gratitiude to strangers.  They are not overdone, they seem real in a very understated way without much translation and yet it tells you so much about these villagers and their dignity.


The father of the dead boy is shown collapsing in the water (he alone is allowed to wallow in sadness) and then we get scenes which show us what happened the day the brothers went to their own father's funeral.  The obvious contrast between the simple pyre of the Indian culture --treated with a decent amount of respect-- and the absence of closure ritual in Western countries (or at least with these brothers) is clearly on show.


It is done in a way which elevates the Indian ritual.  Hence, the very soul of the entire movie rests with these scenes.  And it is not forced down our throat, the symbology is done lightly.  In fact, they are on the bus and almost miss the funeral but they are asked by the parents to come back and attend. This may be Anderson being sly and unwilling to show the brothers using the funeral for their own purposes (so they are asked to come back) but in the end the entire core of the movie is there-- the flashback regarding Luftwaffe Auto (the title of the short story) in the middle of all of this is where we learn half of what is eating at the brothers.


Only perhaps at the end of the movie, when the brothers confront their mother, do things start to unravel.  While the objective of finding the mother adds a goal to the brother's journey and keeps them and hence the script together, the scenes with Angelica Houston add little to the denoument even if they are amusing.  We get to see a little more of why the brothers, and Owen in particular, act as they do.  And we also get to see them further try to resolve their issues and the core issue of the film, that of death and overcoming the emotional toll of loss.  But it seems like there must have been more script to that which was cut?  In a way, her relationship with the brothers only reiterates what we already know about them.  Then she just cuts out.  If she would have had some kind of a bomb to drop on them (something about their father that makes them re-evaluate things yet again) then perhaps her appearance would have been less of the same and more of something that would have pulled the movie forward again.  Instead, it just sort of peters out there, amusing as it is.  


Also, while The Hotel Chevalier is considered the proper opening to the film, it seems to me that is a mistake.  The opening with Bill Murray chasing the train and Brody making it is a great opener and allows us to be thrown into the Indian culture right away, sensing as we do the stares of the natives (wondering how to bridge that gap) and establishing that theme which will go on to be so important to the script.  Instread, scenes from Chevalier should be cut somewhere into the flow of the trainride, perhaps as a series of flashbacks after Schwartzman's encounter with Rita or while he is being depicted checking her messages during the train stop.  This would dimentionalize the character's libidinal nature mixed with grief but not give the scene more heft at the beginning of the film where it doesn't need to be.


Still, by the end of the movie we have taken a fulfilling journey with the characters even as we, viewers of the human comedy, can keep archly above it all (like Anderson, who knows where to put his cranes so he can look down or pan across the lives of those he observes) and see how our cultures and insensitivites doom us to miss or barely make connections concerning love and death in a global era.  11/4/14



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