The whispering winds suggest that Wes Anderson’s new feature, The Darjeeling Limited, will screen commercially without its accompanying prologue short, Hotel Chevalier. If true, an unfortunate turn of events, and not just because it would deny prospective audiences the sight of a lithe and lustrous Natalie Portman reclining nude on a dresser while Peter Sarstedt croons, from the BOSE™-accentuated depths of an iPod, “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)”.
Moreso, the Paris-set Hotel Chevalier is a crucial piece of Anderson’s latest puzzle, adding a few telling shades to the character of Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman)—one of a trio of estranged brothers who undertake a “spiritually healing” train journey across India—while also underscoring Anderson’s cinephilic statement of intent. Expanding on the journeys undertaken by Jonathan Demme and Brian De Palma to the City of Lights (via their nouvelle vague-inspired efforts The Truth About Charlie and Femme Fatale), Anderson travels to Paris for both artistic inspiration and historical engagement: a multipurpose stopover on the road to Rajasthan.
India has drawn many a Gallic cineaste, from Jean Renoir (The River) to Louis Malle (Phantom India and Calcutta), and Anderson pays implicit tribute to his precursors and their probing, sometimes problematic curiosity (a main feature cameo by New Wave benefactor Barbet Schroeder brings the underlying theme—at what point does the filmmaker’s inquisitive presence become an intrusive one?—to the fore). Indeed, The Darjeeling Limited is a highly flawed personal vision, containing what the Screenwriter 101’s among us would deem various and sundry “third act problems.” For a film obsessed (rightly so) with trinities and with the collective expression of a higher, holy purpose, The Darjeeling Limited often plays like a stubbornly earthbound contraption, a sputtering locomotive carrying half-formed ideas to a final destination bereft of necessary transcendence. That the film nonetheless contains some of Anderson’s best work is hardly surprising—he’s nothing if not engaged with each and every frame of his symmetry-besotted world of widescreen.
The Bill-Murray-misses-the-train opener, scored to The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow” (the first of three brothers Davies cues), is one for the ages, a hilarious mount of slo-mo frustration that sees object-obsessed middle brother Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) emerging from the literal shadow of Murray’s pressed-suit surrogate father. The trio’s mid-film visit to an Indian village begets a morbid tonal shift that Anderson handles with a master’s deftness—tempting to call this section (encompassing both a funeral and a flashback) the best thing he’s ever done. Similar kudos to the sequence where eldest brother Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson) removes the bloodied set of bandages he brandishes throughout as a passive-aggressive badge of honor—external wounds and internal ones were seldom so profoundly intertwined.
And yet The Darjeeling Limited never coheres in the ways these individual moments suggest it will. The brothers’ ultimate goal—to seek out their runaway mother (Anjelica Huston, making like Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus)—feels like a perfunctory, tacked-on afterthought, especially in light of the film’s intensely affecting middle section. This time out, Anderson’s desire for structural equipoise ill-serves his themes of reconciliation and redemption; thus do The Darjeeling Limited’s closing images play as little more than the self-conscious metaphors of a heavy-handed literalist. Losing one’s emotional/actual baggage never came off with such resounding indifference.
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.