Very few directors have the capacity to exist in their audience’s imagination.
Regardless of whether you have watched his entire oeuvre back to front or had just one algorithmic chance encounter with his work, if I ask you to think of a Wes Anderson film then a clear, symmetrical, perhaps Bill Murray adorned picture enters your head; an ornately stylised treat that packs an emotional punch despite its seemingly whimsical nature. It is a testament to this auteur’s capacity to communicate his vision that we can do this with ease.
But, what happens when a master communicator like Anderson – who in one deft pan or timely needle drop can tell us more than most directors can in ninety minutes – turns his attention to miscommunication? What happens when someone so adept at capturing and articulating his vision, chooses to focus on our inability to find true connections?
The answer is The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson’s fifth feature film that is currently celebrating its release on Blu-Ray as part of the Criterion Collection.
Let’s face it, if you are reading this review you probably know the plot: Following the death of their father, three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Jason Schwartzman) try to reconcile on a journey of ‘spiritual’ discovery through India that ultimately reveals itself to be a somewhat manipulative attempt on behalf of one of the brothers to seek out the three’s estranged mother.
Now, this is by no means the only film of Anderson’s to deal with the idea of miscommunication: throughout his filmography, dysfunctional families, friendships, and relationships can be found here there and everywhere. However, I believe it is his only film in which miscommunication and misunderstanding manifest themselves in the film’s overall structure. And that is perhaps why, more so than any other example of Anderson’s work, The Darjeeling Limited is derided as much as it is loved.
At some point in the film’s second act, Jason Schwartzman’s character says, “How can a train be lost? It’s on rails.” Despite seeming like some throwaway gag, this quip characterizes Anderson’s approach to both character and narrative structure.
Although we learn odds and ends about the brother’s history, Anderson never connects all the dots or fulfils all his promises. On top of that, the director constantly derails the voyage of discovery, fragmenting the narrative trajectory to deliver moments of intense emotion that juxtapose the apparent whimsey.
Therefore, the characters’ world is always charged with both aesthetic jollity and emotional grief. Yet, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, the film is never fully capable of mastering all three. The onscreen death of the Indian boy, for example, perhaps the most harrowing moment of the entire film, is somewhat tainted by Anderson’s aesthetic approach. Despite the fullness of the frame, there is an apparent emptiness; miscommunication amongst fluent prose.
Whether or not this is intentional or not is perhaps the most puzzling thing about the film. Coming from a master craftsman like Anderson, maybe this all part of a thematic grand plan. However, I think this is more akin to some error that, through its obnoxious inconsistency somehow contributes to the whole. But that is what is so infuriating and simultaneously enchanting about The Darjeeling Limited, it is a train that is improbably lost yet exactly where it needs to be.
Being part of the Criterion collection, the picture quality is exceptionally crisp. The disc is chocked full of incredible bonus features including a behind the scenes documentary, numerous video essays and deleted and alternative scenes. But my favourite is the inclusion of Anderson’s short film Hotel Chevalier, which acts as a prelude for the main feature film, chronicling the failed affair between Jason Schwartzman’s and Natalie Portman’s characters. It is here where we see the best of Anderson. It is a small gem up there with his masterpieces.
Darjeeling Limited will be released as part of the Criterion Collection on the 26th of April.