Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Where are the savory snacks?

I really, really love Hotel Chevalier. The 15-minute companion piece to The Darjeeling Limited is a breathtaking change of pace for Wes Anderson, his miniaturist vision stripped of his usual sprawling narratives and confined to one fleeting encounter between ex-lovers in a suite in the titular hotel. Each line of dialogue is razor-sharp, each shot perfectly selected, and though we're given little exposition about Jack (Jason Schwartzman), his ex (Natalie Portman) and their relationship, we understand everything by the film's end - her restless, chaotic nature (I'm officially a Natalie Portman fan), his contrived persona an attempt to avoid real feeling, and their inability to be less than completely emotionally naked around each other. It's a miniature masterpiece, sexy, sad and perfect, and it signals a new level of maturity from Anderson (not that his previous work is immature - this is a common misconception). This same energy can be found in The Darjeeling Limited, a meandering (by design), occasionally frustrating but ultimately joyous film.

The bitter, defensive tone that marred the otherwise wonderful The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is replaced here with a wiser, more clear-eyed perspective of its characters. Sad-eyed writer Jack, who is never without his iPod's worth of earnest background music, is like Anderson's own admission of his need to meticulously control every detail in every frame. What separates Anderson from too-precious imitators is his honesty; when Jack's suggestion of an ironic punctuation to an emotional moment is met with annoyance by his brothers Francis (Owen Wilson) and Peter (Adrien Brody), it's hard not to see the moment as Anderson's tongue-in-cheek apology for his own insular creative tendencies. India, then, has much the same meaning for Anderson as it does for the Whitman brothers, who take a cross-country trip abord the titular train a year after their father's death - Francis having carefully planned the trip to gurantee spiritual and emotional catharsis, Anderson seemingly imposing his auteurist tendencies on the culture. However, the film soon reveals itself to be a knowing take on this distinctly American form of patronization, the very idea that the country's exotic otherness exists for affluent westerners to take a vacation and have an epiphany. If Anderson's films are calculated, they never contain a moment of forced emotion - when the drugged-up, navel-gazing brothers finally have a real experience, it's a sudden, violent expression of the pain and vitality they've fought so carefully to keep at bay.

It's true that, when that moment itself arrives, it's in the form of a very literal metaphor; one of the common complaints with The Darjeeling Limited is its frequent literalism. It's a valid criticism, but it fails to take two things into account. The first is that the Whitmans are constantly stoned, and drug use consists primarily of being trapped in a series of vague metaphors while being completely oblivious to obvious ones - the fate of their father's baggage is almost laughably on-the-nose, but that's sort of the point. Also, more than any of his films thus far, the visual statements Anderson discovers here are quite beautiful. The shot of a businessman (Bill Murray) chasing after the departing train, the tracking shot, set to the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire," of a universal tableaux, the stunning pair of match cuts bookending a flashback (the film's most devastating scene) - these moments are purple in the best way. Anderson is also aided by his claustrophobic, constantly shifting location, which forces him to be freer in his approach, more open to the unanticipated moments. This has the same effect on the actors - Schwartzman shows growth as an actor, Brody is surprisingly funny as a terrified dad-to-be, and Wilson is moving as the saddest of the brothers, a bruised, bandaged shell of a man who simply must have a spiritual experience before he implodes (wouldn't it be perverse not to mention the too-obvious parallels to - well, yeah).

There's a moment when the brothers are confronting their long-absent mother (Anjelica Huston), and she tells them they're talking to a person that doesn't exist. Anderson's films are filled with such ghosts - parents that loom larger than life in our memories, mundane childhood experiences that take on epic importance with the passing of time, all the remembered hurt and injustice of the past. The Darjeeling Limited, like all of Anderson's films, is about the exhumation and reenactment of these moments, though for the first time it feels like a sort of exorcism. It's way too early to dismiss Anderson, one of our few true auteurs, as a one-trick pony - the train's, like, just departing, man.

No comments: