Tuesday, November 27, 2007

THE DARJEELING LIMITED should take its own advice

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself. It's highly unattractive."

I was non-plussed by THE DARJEELING LIMITED when I watched it at the London Film Festival. Because I had previously enjoyed many of Wes Anderson's films, I thought maybe my non-reaction was due to cinematic overload in the preceeding fortnight. So I decided to give the flick another shot after a suitably relaxing Thansgiving break had put me into a more receptive mood. Sadly, even after a second viewing, I have to report that Wes Anderson is, to my mind, a director offering diminishing returns.

His new movie, THE DARJEELING LIMITED, treads familiar ground. So much so that THE ONION spoofed his style brilliantly last month. The production design consists of interiors over-stuffed with meaningful objets and the characters wear tailor-made suits and carry bespoke luggage. We are in the ranks of the over-privileged and self-indulgent. The camera draws attention to itself by switching between static symmetric framing; sudden changes of focus; and the jarring use of slo-mo (usually to a vintage Kinks sound-track.) There is an absent father figure and a beloved but somehow distant mother. There are siblings who are struggling to deal with each other and their parents. There is a troubled boy, played by a Wilson brother, who attempts suicide.

In previous, better films, Wes Anderson used this set-up to create characters that were memorable and love-able. He brilliantly articulated the dynamics of family relationships but also provided light relief throught witty banter and improbable situations. His movies have always looked deliberately designed but pre LIFE AQUATIC, they also had heart.

THE DARJEELING LIMITED is, by contrast, a deeply boring, unengaging and alienating experience. Three self-obsessed, self-pitying brothers cross Rajasthan by train, feigning interest in spiritual enlightenment but skating on the surface of things. Anderson doesn't so much satirise the dumb, luxury-lined tourist as simply present him for our consideration. As a result, where we should have laughed at, and with, our protagonists, we find ourselves bored by their emotional ugliness. Surely, it must be possible to make a movie about superficial people on a dull journey that is not of itself superficial and dull?

As dull as this movie is, it might have been forgiveable were it not for one serious mis-step. This centres on Wes Anderson's use of a tragic event as a deus ex machina. His exploitation of an Indian tragedy to facilitate a change in the American protagonists is woefully exploitative, in that he never pays any attention to the impact of this event on the Indian characters. They are merely authentic background details. And this brings me to a wider inconsistency in the piece. For much of this movie, Anderson implicitly criticises superficial tourists who do not engage with the places they travel in and, specifically in the case of India, see it as a means to their own spiritual enlightenment rather than a worthy subject of study in itself. But, on the other hand, Anderson is guilty of exactly the things he is criticises. India is no more than a facilitator that is lightly skated over.

Finally, Anderson's sheer lack of humility is infuriating. Given how generally tedious, emotionally dry and morally vacuous this movie is - how completely unengaged with India - Anderson's musical nod to Satyajit Ray appears presumptuous in the extreme.

THE DARJEELING LIMITED played Venice and London 2007. It opened in Canada and the US earlier this year and is currently on release in the UK, Brazil, Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Norway. It opens in December in Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Norway and in January in Germany, Singapore, Italy, Spain, Russia and Iceland. It opens in Estonia, Turkey and the Netherlands in February and in Japan, Argentina and France in March. It opens in Finland in April 2008.

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