Thursday, February 21, 2013

India on Film (Part 2: The Darjeeling Limited)

The third film in this little series on films about Westerners in India is Wes Anderson's 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited. The previous two films discussed were Jean Renoir's 1951 film The River, and John Madden's 2011 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Runtime: 91 minutes
Currently unavailable for instant streaming, but you can rent from Netflix through the mail, or digitally for $2.99 on Amazon.

It should be mentioned that there is a short called Hotel Chevalier that is meant to be watched together with (or right before) The Darjeeling Limited, during which Jack's ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman) puts something into Jack's suitcase that shows up again later in the feature, and Jack writes one of his short stories based on the scene we see in this short film.



The Darjeeling Limited is about three brothers whose father has passed away just a year before the story takes place. Their mother has disappeared, deciding not to attend the funeral. The brothers don’t trust each other and have gone their separate ways after the funeral for their father.  It is a pretty broken family situation.

The film begins with Peter and Jack, the younger brothers of the three, having been called by Francis, the eldest, to go to India and get on a train called The Darjeeling Limited. After one years time the three finally meet again, and Francis asks why they haven’t spoken for so long. They soon admit they still don’t trust each other and are all still clearly in mourning from the loss of their father and their mother having disappeared from their lives as well as pressures from their own daily lives.

 The three fight amongst themselves when they realize that one of them has things that once belonged to their father. They are very defensive about who gets to keep each of their father's belongings. They each have several pieces of their father's Louis Vuitton luggage set. Francis (Owen Wilson) feels as though the father’s belongings should belong to all of them, and none of them should be able to selfishly keep his stuff as if it’s theirs, as if the amount of belongings given to each son somehow indicates who the father loved more.

It is Francis who has meticulously planned this "spiritual journey" for them in an attempt to reconnect and gain enlightenment. In fact, the degree to which Francis has planned things out for the group tends to annoy the other brothers. We see them having packed their many bags, and using a laminated itinerary, but these are all things that would keep you from truly having a "spiritual journey." You can't plan one for yourself, you have to let it happen. In order to have the type of experience they want, you'd think they'd be travelling with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and an open schedule. They are attempting to control their situation and force themselves into an "experience," but it isn't until things go against their plans that they do start to experience things, and there are symbols throughout the movie of their attempts at controlling their situation failing, such as the snake breaking out of its box.

During the Criterion commentary Roman Coppola (one of the writers) shared that he, Wes Anderson, and Jason Swartzman all wrote the film together, and each would write for one of the brothers. Jason, of course, wrote for himself, Roman was Peter (Adrian Brodey), and Wes was Francis. Wes being Francis makes sense, because Wes is a bit like Francis. He is the meticulous planner. The train itself is meticulously decorated, as are all of the props. An attention to detail is something always present with any Wes Anderson film, and certainly Francis seems to have been given that same sense. Francis almost feels as though he raised them, he even asks them if they feel the same way. During mealtimes, Francis orders for all three of them, and guides the group by asking for a vote on other decisions, which irritates Peter and Jack, who, of course, want to maintain their independence.


On this journey, each brother brought with them their own set of emotional “baggage," that is symbolized by their physical bags they carry around. They are things that need to be healed, and it's no coincidence that they are tied to the dad further cementing the fact that these brothers are still not emotionally over the loss of their father. Francis, the oldest, had tried committing suicide by crashing his motorcycle at high speed. We aren't told why he wanted to commit suicide, but we seem left to assume that it might have had something to do with the family situation. After surviving the ordeal he decided to take on this journey to reconnect with everyone. His facial scars serve as a visual of the pain in need of healing in his and his brother’s lives. 

Peter is escaping from the reality of life with his pregnant wife. Perhaps it has to do with the loss of their own father, but he is truly afraid of becoming a father himself. He reveals at one point that although he loves his wife he always assumed that one day they would get a divorce. He even buys a snake, as if an attempt at being a father, trying to learn to be a good caretaker by buying a pet, but how can he take care of it if he is afraid of it? The fact that it's poisonous (even the box has a warning of a skull and crossbones) is a symbol of his fear of being a father. And, of course, it breaks lose. It is yet another situation he can't control.

Finally, Jack, distressed by his on and off girlfriend (seen in Hotel Chevalier), was staying in the Hotel Chevalier looking a little depressed. We are told he had been there for at least over a month. He had gone there to write as well as run away from his girlfriend, but she followed him anyway, and we see him warring with himself when she asks if she can stop by and see him. He says he didn't say she could come, but when she asks he reluctantly says ok. During the course of the film he gives his brothers a few of his short stories to read, but every story has been based on his fickle (and likely destructive) romantic situation or memories of his father’s funeral, and despite his assertion that all the characters are fictional his brothers know better. His girlfriend places a bottle of her perfume in his suitcase, as if to place a piece of her into his emotional "baggage" that he will carry with him to India.

In his attempt to move on from his ex, he has a side relationship with one of the train's stewardess', whom they refer to as "Sweet Lime." It isn't clear whether he is just trying to have a fling to move on or if he is looking for inspiration for his next short story. He has also brought a ticket to Italy with him, planning to escape from his brothers and meet up with his ex-girlfriend again as soon as he can, but Francis has taken his brother's passports to keep them all together. It's funny that while they are trying to pray Francis gets upset at Peter for taking his belt without asking, telling him that he should ask first, but a second later Jack finds out that Francis took his passport without telling him. More distrust among the brothers.

Sidenote: notice they tend to constantly walk around (even outside) in their pajamas as if they haven't yet woken up. They are still dreaming, having not yet entered the real world to face their real lives.

We reach a midpoint in the film when the brothers are kicked off the train for causing one too many commotions. They think their journey has failed its purpose, and that it's over, but of course now that they are no longer able to control it, it's finally beginning. The real turning point in their journey comes when they come across three boys trying to cross a small, but fast moving bit of water, but the ropes break and they fall dangerously into the water. They manage to save two of the boys, but Peter cannot save the third. This is his section of the film. When they walk in a line, he leads the way, he calls out to help the boys, and he struggles with the death of the boy because he knows very soon he will become a father himself. They are welcomed into the boys village. We see Peter hold a baby, and look a little uneasy about it. SIDENOTE: The father of the boy from the village is played by Irrfan Khan who recently played adult Pi Patel from Ang Lee's Life of Pi.

They get invited to the boys funeral. Of course, the last time they were all together a year ago was at the funeral for their father. We cut to a flashback of them heading to their father's funeral. It plays out the way Jack wrote in the short story from earlier in the film. They find the last piece of luggage from their father's set. They try to force the car to work, as if it is a symbol for their father that needs to be present for the funeral, but of course, it's dead, it isn't ready to go, and they can't control it, they cannot force it to work or be there when they need it.

Cut back to the present, after the boy's funeral they are about to head home. While waiting for the plane we see that Peter had bought a vest for his child. He may still have some learning to do, but he is no longer going to run away from becoming a father.

Francis takes off his bandages and sees he still has some more healing to do, which is a statement meant for all of them, and Jack asks Francis what to pray for next finally giving trust to his brother and allowing him to be the planner for them. They all decide to continue their travels through India together and visit their mother.

While visiting their mother, it's clear Francis has taken after her. She orders for all of them and asks them to raise their hands to vote on things the same way we saw Francis doing earlier in the film. Then there is a great sequence in which they inform their mother on everything they have been going through. These three very vocal characters finally stop talking for a moment and just allow themselves to communicate with their mother and each other by looking at each without words. We cut to a "dream train" that contains everything they've been going through. The camera dollys through the train cars showing Rita (Sweet Lime), the train's chief steward holding the snake he confiscated from them, the boys from the village they went to, Peter's pregnant wife, Alice, in her bed, Brendan on his flight home, and Jack's ex-girlfriend. It's the first real moment of connection they've had throughout the film.

Their mother abandons them again, but they've already spent enough time with her. They have their feather ceremony together, and proceed to their next train. On the way there Jack reads a portion of his latest short story to the brothers. He says, "I wrote the end, but I don't know how it starts." Which is how they've tried to plan their trip in the first place, they may know where they'd like to be but they aren't sure how to get there. The dialogue between Jack and his girlfriend from Hotel Chevalier is exactly the same as the dialogue he reads from his short story, but he adds a line, "He would not be going to Italy." He is ready to move on from her.

While running to catch their train they finally toss aside all their "baggage." You know their experience on this new train will be much better than the experience they had on the Darjeeling Limited. Peter and Jack allow Francis to hold on to their passports, they have given that trust to each other. Their experiences have brought them closer together, and one way or another helped them get through their pain, becoming more ready to take on the rest of their lives. It isn't the story of spiritual enlightenment they thought it would be, but there was a sense of healing for the brothers. This is the story of how these brothers have come to the point where they are actually READY to travel together on a spiritual journey, no baggage, and no itinerary.

During the commentary Wes Anderson mentions that Martin Scorsese screened Renoir's The River for him, and it as well as the films of Satyajit Ray inspired him to make this film in India. It is another example of Westerners travelling to India for healing and growth.


Wes Anderson tends to be a polarizing filmmaker. Either you love his work or you hate it. His subtle humor doesn't impress everyone (even though I much prefer his type of subtle humor to slapstick, or outrageous comedy). Some would argue that either you get it or you don't, but even among Wes Anderson fans I think this film gets overlooked. It still has little moments of dry, subtle humor, but it isn't as much a comedy as his other films. I think it's a more mature film. His films tend to be drama/comedy mixtures, with his own brand of more subtle humor, but they always tend to lean a little more toward comedy than drama. The Darjeeling Limited is the exception.

Comedy or drama aside, you have to enjoy the fact that there is an obvious love of movies and filmmaking present in his films. Some think his films are overindulgent in his eccentricities, but I love the style of his films, and I do appreciate the attention to detail present in his work. Each camera shot could be a still photograph or a painting. The composition of each shot and the set design, costumes and props have been meticulously planned. Too often when you look at a Hollywood production, unless you know ahead of time, you wouldn't know who directed it just by watching it. When you watch a Wes Anderson film, you know without a doubt you are watching a Wes Anderson film. Like any good artist, he leaves his mark on his films, he has his own artistic style, and I think he is one of the most creative directors working today.

The Darjeeling Limited is not simply a touching story of brothers from a broken family looking for healing, it is a piece of art worth recognizing.
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Criterion Collection recognizes important, and/or arthouse films, and their release of The Darjeeling Limited has a lot of interesting extras. I also like that Wes' brother has done the box art for all of his films that have been released through Criterion. They are always drawings of scenes or settings with the characters from the films. Below is the box art for the Criterion Collections release of The Darjeeling Limited: