Looking Awry at Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited

This is an article that was published back in the fall in Fuller’s “newspaper” the SEMI (that issue of the paper can be downloaded via .pdf here). There are two reasons I am posting this now: first, I held off publishing it on gathering because I submitted it to another online zine hoping they would “print” it but alas, they apparently didn’t want it or at least that’s how I interpreted three emails to them with no response back.  And second (and more importantly!), Emily just got me a copy of the film today so it is on my mind. Given that The Darjeeling Limited came out this past September you may feel that this is a bit late, but in a world of such high DVD sales and rentals there’s no better time then right now (the movie was only recently released on DVD). As you will see I found the movie to be anything but a disappointment and think Anderson’s writing is very rich and worthy to be mined. In fact, many of you may remember me posting my initial reactions to the film here, and while there are some similar themes between these two, you will find that what you see below is an attempt to theorize and engage the film at a deeper level.

The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson’s fifth feature-length film, and fulfills all of his typical onscreen requirements. While he may be best known for his stylistic approach to filmmaking: the bright vibrant colors; the too-small suites and jumpsuits for everyday attire; classic rock behind a scene in slow motion;  long one-camera-angle shots; his constant use of the same actors and actresses, he is no less than one of our generation’s best storytellers. If you’ve come to love Anderson’s eccentric narratives then Darjeeling will not disappoint you.

Darjeeling is about three brothers who all share in the problems of broken relationships, self-centeredness and the after effects of their father’s recent death.  Francis, played by Owen Wilson, summons his other two brothers, Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and Peter (Adrian Brody), to join him on a spiritual journey through India on The Darjeeling Limited, a ragged electric-blue train carrying everything from farm animals, to natives and wealthy Americans. The journey is partially to confront issues of trust in their own relationships with each other, but is also meant to deal with the death of their father, and find their runaway mother. While on this journey they travel to different parts of India, experiment with Eastern religion, and encounter some major events that help to reshape the way they understand each other and themselves. 

One thing that makes Wes Anderson so important as a filmmaker is he continues to revisit similar topics again and again.  Each film is vastly different, yet paradoxically remains the same.  It is as if Anderson has taken some of the deepest issues that haunt humankind, dressed them up in colorful jumpsuits, and gives us small glances at these tragic-comedies from a variety of privileged viewpoints. Because of this his stories refuse our reductionistic desires to pin one moral to the story.  Just as in Darjeeling, people only grow while confronting these painful realities head on, and often it’s not pretty.  This is symbolized most grotesquely in the post-motorcycle crash bandages wrapped around Owen Wilson’s head.  In fact, his issue is so traumatic, so REAL, that Owen Wilson embodies the very act of Francis’ attempted suicide in his actual life (Wilson attempted suicide in August).  Here narrative and reality  collide. This is one reason why we should refrain from trying to rate Anderson’s movies as one being better than another. If it is essentially the same traumatic story told from different perspectives and in different contexts, only understood when viewed together as a kind of ongoing metanarrative that confronts the dirty underbelly of the real world. Think about the themes covered in each of Anderson’s films going back to Rushmore (1998): death, attempted suicides, bad family relationships (usually involving the father), the abuse of external things (sometimes drugs, sometimes power and influence) to cope with reality, unhealthy sexual relationships, identity crisis in all its forms, the struggle to be accepted and loved, and the importance community plays both in these crises and their resolution. 

One key in understanding Anderson’s storytelling is that he sees crisis, and often the crisis of death, as the turning point within the story.  There are two basic events in the movie that act as turning points in Darjeeling.  The first is when Peter fails to save the life of a drowning Indian boy.  Because of this the brothers are thrust into the lives of the boys’ family and community amidst this tragic episode. The second is when they finally meet up with their runaway mother, turned catholic nun, played by another Anderson favorite Angelica Houston.  Patricia has used the nunnery as an escape from her sons and dead husband, but it is only after their arrival that the brothers finally learn these truths.  The next morning, Patricia’s fled again with no trace, leaving  Francis, Peter and Jack back where they started. After both these points we see major changes in the brothers and how they relate to their own tragic realities.   

We can also look at Darjeeling as a movie that acknowledges the struggle of family as community.  The entire movie consists of the brothers wrestling with whether they can ultimately trust one another or not. Francis, the eldest, constantly represents the personality most ruled by dogma.  At every turn he tries to make Peter and Jack agree upon new laws to govern their relationships, “I want us to be completely open and say yes to everything…???  Later we learn where he got this from, their mother who not only tries to create rules for her sons upon their arrival, but is also outwardly “dogmatic??? in her commitment as a nun. 

This difference between Francis and Patricia is key to understanding part of Anderson’s ethos.  Francis, is physically a complete wreck, having recently attempted suicide by crashing his motorcycle into the side of an embankment. Yet inwardly he’s on this spiritual journey looking for something, confronting head on his disfunctions and the painful truths in his past. Initially it is difficult to envision him as a hero of the film but when you juxtapose Francis to his mother things come into clearer focus.  Patricia, the nun on the run, is literally clothed in spirituality.  She knows the proper gestures, prayers and the words to the hymns, as opposed to her sons who look ridiculous when they try and pray.  But Patricia’s character is the main reason why her sons are in India (though Jack and Peter weren’t initially aware of this), they are trying track their missing mother down! Not only did she not attend her husband’s funeral, but she hasn’t spoken to her sons in over a year.  

On the one hand, Patricia, while outwardly ruled by dogma, in the face of confronting her dysfunctional past runs the other direction.  Francis, on the other hand, while literally clothed with anti-spirituality and dysfunction (he wears bandages on his head the whole film) orders his life through these “dogmas??? like his mother, he also finds what he is looking for through the constant confronting of these tragic issues. The movie is about how the brothers continue, in the face of adversity, to stick together. In other words, in Darjeeling, as well as for all of Anderson’s other films, history never comes out all right but the characters carry on anyways.  There is never any real resolution, the resolution is in confronting our pain and fears and pressing through it.  The refusal to put all the pieces back together, or to paint a rosy ending makes Anderson’s storytelling appealing.  When the brothers at the end of the film give their passports back to Francis as a way of symbolizing their newfound trust in one another, it ought to be understood as trust in spite of their issues not because they’ve been resolved.  Anderson’s endings must always be viewed in spite of some other much larger crisis still looming.  And ultimately, for me, this embodies well the tragic-comedy of everyday life. 

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

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