Last night I watched The Darjeeling Limited for the many-eth time. Although Wes Anderson often gets criticized for what many view to be a pretentious film style, I found that he was a true storyteller in the best sense. This is not to say that parts of the film aren’t sometimes indulgent or any other term put by Anderson critics, but that all the parts of Darjeeling fit together to show something about Anderson, his viewer and the story.
Those who focus on Anderson’s eccentricities such as the bright colors, ’60s rock or that every character wears something cool miss the idea that Anderson genuinely likes these characteristics, and something can’t be pretentious by definition if it’s informed by truth. All these items contribute to Anderson’s suit of armor he wears against the world. I started listening to similar music as Anderson, wearing leather jackets and newsboy caps in my early twenties. I still haven’t stopped up to 30, because they’re the constructs in which I find myself most comfortable. In much the same way, Anderson loves his mythology.
It’s okay if you don’t like the movie because you don’t like the way it’s filmed. That’s equally valid as the point made here, but while Anderson has an affinity for flashy things, he uses it as a candy-coating to expertly reveal real human life. At the heart of Darjeeling is an important story about family tension and catharsis: about each character finding themselves. This is Francis regretting his dangerous lifestyle and needing to see his family after the motorcycle accident, Peter struggling with commitment issues after the death of his father, and Jack seeking to make himself whole through his womanizing. “Thanks for using me,” Jack says to the Indian waitress. “You’re welcome,” she says with a wry smile.
The first time I watched was in 2007 during the release. Back then I was 19 and didn’t understand myself. I had vicious arguments and pursued passionate relationships. I remember vividly that I would order bowls of won-ton soup and crab-rangoon and watch every piece of it with my then-girlfriend, always including the related Hotel Chevalier short for good measure (“Where do you go to, my lovely?”). Back then I had no emotional insight to myself and just liked things, Darjeeling among them.
Now, I understand that nothing is coincidence and that every book, record and film that you like will tell you something intimate about both yourself and the artist. Now I know that it’s because I identified with the intensity of the Francis/Jack characters, and with Peter’s lack of commitment. And who doesn’t like Bill Murray running slow motion to “This Time Tomorrow” in the middle of a beautiful Indian landscape?
The better movies have to transmit intensity of the moment in the most precise ways, and you’ll find on Andersonian viewings that every instant moment in The Darjeeling Limited conveys something intimate of each character’s psyche, which then translates to the viewer (as it did to the 19 year-old me). Film has always been the most able to bring immediate catharsis to the viewer, because every great film is a melting pot of art: the song playing in the background (Anderson likes “the Kinks”) will always contribute to the screen moment in a good director’s movie. The ancillary characters are just as important in saying something about the story as Owen Wilson. Take when Peter carries the fallen Indian boy out of the water. “I didn’t save mine,” Peter says, and we know that this is connected to his personal fear of fatherhood.
The most important thing about Wes Anderson is that he unapologetically made films that he knew would be disliked by some critics who felt they were disingenuously “cool.” One characteristic of Andersonian film is that the characters use sparse interactions you wouldn’t see in real life. “Did I raise us ..kind of?” Francis asks his two brothers on the Darjeeling Limited, and when this might cause a conversation in real life, Anderson knows that he’s conveyed the point and can move on.
At the end of the glamorous rainbow that is the Wes Anderson film, there’s truth, and that’s what distinguishes Anderson as a great filmmaker and The Darjeeling Limited as a great movie.