Comedy is tragedy seen from a distance. So why does Wes Anderson shoot most of his comedies in close-up? Critics have complained that he’s obsessed with style as a director, that there’s no heart to his movies… everything’s arch. But people wouldn’t love movies like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums if they were only window-dressing. It’s true enough that Anderson has an eye for composition, but it’s the heart of his movies that draws people in. The Darjeeling Limited is beautiful to look at, full of wit and wry, subtle humour, but again (and, as always) you’ll fall for it because it’s a funny/sad movie. Adjectives, like tragedy, come closer when Wes Anderson is in the director’s chair.
Darjeeling is about three brothers: Jason Schwartzman, Adrian Brody and Luke Wilson. They have lost their father and each is, in his own way, finding it hard to cope. Luke Wilson invites his siblings on a holiday to India, hoping they can re-connect over the course of a long train journey. Wilson (heavily bandaged for most of the movie) has recently been involved in a motorcycle accident; Brody is about to become a father and Schwartzman is being tormented by an ex-girlfriend. India is meant to provide the answers to their woes.
The movie starts with a short film set in a Paris hotel-room. Jason Schwartzman, looking suave, has sex with Natalie Portman. The scene is erotic, if a little detached. Schwartzman, the quintessential Anderson hero, is angry at Portman for leaving him (we’re never told her reasons). She wants a friendship where they can occasionally have sex. He’s still in love. They are both rich, jaded, J.D. Salinger-types who could easily lose our sympathies – yet they don’t. Instead, we feel their need for each other and the great, unbridgeable gap between them. They’re fakes, but they act sincerely.
Luke Wilson and Adrian Brody are also playing not-quite real people. Even as Wilson describes the motorcycle accident that spurred him to reunite the brothers, he does so so eloquently that his speech sits perched between heartbreak and spoof (not that we don’t feel the heartbreak, but – still). Brody is tetchy and fretful for most of the movie, easily the most circumspect of the three brothers, but still capable of saying and doing unexpected things. He would probably be the only brother you could meet in the real world, but he’s also the man who buys a poisonous snake and takes it on a train.
India, as Darjeeling envisions it, is a place where every Indian speaks with a British accent, and as such is not to be confused with the real India. It’s more a place where Americans can go that isn’t hostile, familiar or part of the United States. It’s there to shelter Brody, Wilson and Schwartzman. Sure, there’s a lot of talk of “spirituality”, in that way that people talk when they aren’t serious about religion, but Anderson doesn’t want to make a movie about the India of ashrams and spiritual awakenings, he just wants to show his characters another way of life, to help them break free of their money-coddled melancholy.
The Darjeeling Limited is about what Rushmore, Tenenbaums and every Wes Anderson movie is about: it’s about family. Anderson doesn’t see family in exactly Waltons-terms, but he does see it as the last best hope for people who might otherwise sever all ties with the world. As thorny and as fractious as familial relations may be, they’re simply so necessary that (in Anderson’s view) to do without is to be done for. His is a cutesy movie-world only on the surface; it’s well-dressed to hide something rather than to cover nothing up. If you’ve ever felt tired of the world, if you’ve ever been lonely… The Darjeeling Limited doesn’t for one moment seem false – it’s just a funny way of telling a sad, sad story.