It’s the big night; Opening Night of the 45th New York Film Festival! While the public gets its first taste of the festival’s offerings with two gala screenings tonight, Friday also marks the halfway point in the festival’s Press and Industry screening schedule. After a seemingly slow start, things have picked up considerably the past couple of days; Stay tuned for reviews of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Flight Of The Red Balloon and Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine all of which have knocked my socks off. With Bela Tarr tomorrow and the Opening Night festivities on tap, I am not sure how I am going to get everything I want to say onto the page. Things could be worse, no? How great is it to be alive, living in the city I love and spending my days taking in films? Having taken two years away from the film community back in 2000, I now know better; I wouldn’t trade these humid autumn days for anything.
While I’ll be rushing home to press my tuxedo for the festival’s Opening Night party, most will be inside of the theaters taking in this year’s Opening Night Film, Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. As a programmer, I know a little bit about the science of programming Opening Night; You want an upbeat, engaging film that will get things off to a fun, happy start. You want a crowd pleaser that will show the audience a good time and inspire them to sample more of the program in the remaining days. In my opinion, the Selection Committee at the Film Society has chosen a near-perfect film; Opening Night is the right spot for the latest from Anderson, whose melancholic comedies (melancomedies?) usually leave audiences and critics deeply divided.
I’m not sure I know of any comic filmmaker who inspires as much misguided vitriol as Wes Anderson. People like the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow get roundly praised for their “humanity” despite their gross-out tactics and stereotyping, but as soon as critics enter the aestheticized realm of a Wes Anderson movie, the critical thesaurus gets a work out; “precious”, “hermetically sealed” and my favorite of the bunch “Anderson’s arch, highly artificial style gets in the way of character and emotional development, rendering pic piquant rather than profound”. While the world continues to blow sunshine up the ass of the innumerable films in the long parade wrought by There’s Something About Mary, Wes Anderson has created an uniquely comic sensibility and not-so suddenly, everyone’s a cheap-shot artist.
The Darjeeling Limited is the story of the Whitman Brothers, suicidal Francis (Owen Wilson), grieving Peter (Adrian Brody) and broken-hearted Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and their reunion aboard the film’s titular train as it speeds across India toward the foot of the Himalayan Mountains and an appointment with destiny. This being a Wes Anderson movie, the train provides enough chambers, rooms and passageways to create the now-expected series of tableaux, spaces in which the director’s signature framing, color schemes and production design provide as many grins and laughs as the action that takes place within them. Interestingly, this film was presented in a 2.33 aspect ratio which, in my book, is perfect for the complexity of Anderson’s visual strategy to shine; While faces and figures dominate the center of seemingly every frame, the outer thirds are given over to creating a purely aesthetic environment where a tremendous amount of insight about the story resides. I think that far too often, people are so distracted by this aesthetic strategy that they blame a lack of “character development” on the story itself, but this is hardly the case; A single frame of The Darjeeling Limited will tell you more about the longings, obsessions and desires of its characters than most monologues would ever dare dream. What most of these objections seem to represent is a frustration with Anderson’s obsessively cinematic practice of conveying information through the image; His films create complete worlds through aesthetics and design instead of exposition and predictable plotting. Anderson’s aesthetics are as instantly recognizable as, say, Guy Maddin’s German expressionist worship, but criticism of Anderson’s style always seems to misrepresent the depth of his storytelling ability by dismissing the visual information and ignoring the harmony of the relationship between the image, words and music in his films.
Oh, Brother: Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited
In the case of The Darjeeling Limited, there is a deep connection between the characters, the objects they carry and their inarticulable feelings, perspectives and interpersonal histories; The clositered environment of the trio’s cabin on board the train acts as a pressure cooker for the unspoken tensions that lay beneath the surface of every interaction. What this film does so well (and what I think a film like The Life Aquatic failed to do) is to create a story in perfect harmony with the film’s visual strategy; The movie’s design is as deliciously, hopelessly inauthentic as the brother’s seemingly improvised spiritual quest and yet provides the structure and order in which the story’s note-perfect sibling chaos can unfold. This is, after all, a tale of three estranged brothers, and not since Bottle Rocket have Anderson’s dialogue and story conveyed familial relations in such a convincing way. Whereas The Life Aquatic‘s story felt under-motivated because Steve Zissou’s deadpan egoism and emotional isolation greatly outweighed the film’s half-hearted, under-imagined attempts to make us believe he cared about a long lost son, the characters in The Darjeeling Limited wear their hearts on their sleeves; From the first look of longing and regret in Adrian Brody’s eyes in the film’s terrific opening sequence until the final group shot on The Bengal Lancer (the film’s ‘other’ train), these characters express a desire to connect with one another, to change without compromising who they really are.
This need to connect and to transcend gives the film its narrative thrust, sending the fraternal triumvirate headlong on a quest for any kind of ‘spiritual enlightenment’ they can manufacture. This quest also provides the movie its comic heart, giving Anderson and the terrific cast the opportunity to excoriate this privileged strand of spiritual inquiry as nothing more than avoidance of life’s bitter truths. In the first of these terrific moments, Francis tells the group that they are visiting The Palace of 1000 Bulls, “one of the most spiritual places on earth”, where of course the guys decide to go shopping for shoes and deadly snakes before feigning devotion at a tiny shrine. Other rituals follow, none of them allowing for anything nearly as profound as the moment they share when they finally track down the mother who abandoned them in their hour of need (played by a wild-eyed Anjelica Houston). Bury all the feathers beneath all the rocks you can, but nothing can replace the bitter solidarity of sharing a breakfast cooked by a mother who doesn’t know how to love you the way you need to be loved.
The Sacred And The Profane: The Brothers Whitman In Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited
In this regard, the film has as much in common with a film like I Heart Huckabees as it does with the oft-referenced (even by Anderson himself) Jean Renoir’s The River (which, incidentally, is less about what A.O. Scott called ‘village life in India’ than it is about the experience of a privileged child who falls rapturously in love with an equally isolated, colonial world). That said, The River‘s influence on the film is profound; In a moving sequence, the brothers spontaneously work together to try and avert an unforeseen disaster down by the river. Here, when the boys are off the train and left to see India from the other side of their looking-glass compartment windows, wisdom is forged in the echoes of tragedies past and more closure is achieved than could have reasonably been expected. Real life intrudes, itineraries are crumpled into laminated balls and forgiveness is the hard-won path to reconciliation. Put the cynicism away; The Darjeeling Limited is absolutely lovely, a lot of fun and Anderson’s best film since Rushmore.
The film is preceded both in presentation and in narrative time by Anderson’s tremendous short film, Hotel Chevalier. The short serves as a prelude to the feature and tells the story of how broken-hearted Jack (Jason Schwartzman) became broken-hearted during a rendezvous with his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman) at the titular Parisian hotel. This film is as romantic and devastating as anything Anderson has ever made and, although properly excluded from the main feature (for me, the tonal differences between the two films are what make them beautiful companions, yet not of the same cloth), I highly recommend seeing Hotel Chevalier before seeing the main feature. The way in which the two films speak to each other is a lovely innovation; I would love to see more of this type of interplay between movies in the future, especially if it is done with as much care as is on display in Hotel Chevalier. Two films sharing a character and an interwoven narrative; A terrific, appropriate beginning to an engaging month of cinematic exploration. Isn’t that what Opening Night is all about?