a quirky voyage

I’ve just had a rather odd experience. I opened the copy of Locus that flopped through my letterbox this morning, and flipped through the news until I got to the colour photos in the middle. I looked through them with interest because they focused on the recent Worldcon in Japan. It brought back great memories.

And then I spotted a photo of me with my Clarion West mates Tinatsu, Gord, and Caroline, standing around Ellen Datlow. It was rather surreal as I wasn’t aware the photo would be in Locus. But, hey, I’m not complaining.

While I was in Dublin last week I had a free night on my own and decided to go to my old stomping ground, the IFI, and watch The Darjeeling Limited, which was written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman, and directed by Wes Anderson. It was preceded by the short film Hotel Chevalier, which Anderson funded himself, and I think it adds an extra dimension to the viewing of The Darjeeling Limited. At the time I wasn’t aware that the little film would air before the main event and was surprised. I assumed that the placement was intentional and Anderson was commenting in a kind of metafictional way about beginnings and endings. The main film bore out that interpretation.

The film circles around three affluent American brothers Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) who take a journey together through India on the Darjeeling Limited train after a separation of a year following the death of their father. Once again Anderson explores the internal dynamics of an eccentric family. The film works best when it’s examining the brothers’ oddball relationships, and uncovering their issue with their absent, strange mother, Patricia (Anjelica Huston).

The men begin by lying to one or the other brothers about what they’ve been doing for the past year while also confessing the truth to another, so eventually the deceit is uncovered and with it old patterns and behaviours are revealed. They begin their expedition on a train, hampered by the huge collection of their father’s bespoke luggage, and over time as they snake through India they are thrown off the train, and have to resort to cruder forms of travel. Finally, after their long journey takes them through death and reunion they run to catch a train, and in a symbolic gesture jettison their father’s bags (and emotional baggage).

The story does play with beginnings and endings. There is a point towards the middle of the film where I felt myself becoming impatient with the story and the fraternal bickering, and suddenly a dramatic event occurs that goes to the heart of the brothers’ issues with each other. Finally, we are shown a flashback to the events on the day of their father’s funeral, which at that point in the film I was not expecting. When the men encounter their mother all the tumblers click into the place and the oddness of their family seem explicable.

This is an unusual film. It’s beautifully shot, and Anderson uses slow-motion to deliberate effect at several key moments. The music is fantastic, and of course the setting is marvellous. It’s a film that I enjoyed more as I watched it, which was a pleasant surprise.

Yet, I do have some issues with the film. I could have done without the usual eroticisation of the Indian woman, and there is gratuitous nudity of Natalie Portman in Hotel Chevalier. I’m sure that’s going to make the short film more popular with some people. I’m not adverse to nudity in films but I prefer when it’s not played directly for the taste of men.

Also, I found myself somewhat uncomfortable by the spiritual voyeurism going on in the film. India is posited as a place that is wild, beautiful, and inherently spiritual, and the three men take in the spiritual sights to try and bolster their wrecked internal lives. Perhaps Anderson is trying to comment on this very issue, but I felt it played along with it, and didn’t explore it. India is a country of great extremes, and I felt Anderson’s portrayal had a glossy coating. I appreciate that Anderson’s films always have a hyper-real quality, so you don’t imagine that the events are all taking place in the here and now. I like that about his work. Yet, there is a sense of India’s heritage being strip-mined so that wealthy Americans can gain a little perspective about their lives. Anderson just manages to ameliorate this tendency by how he shifts gears in the middle of the film.

Overall this is a film of many layers, which are uncovered slowly. It requires engagement and an open mind by the viewer, but it’s easy to be seduced by its playful tone. Any issues I have with the film are countered by its charm, excellent performances, and unusual execution.