This week, we’re covering some comedies, one from Lubitsch, who we’ve covered before, And one from Wes Anderson, who I haven’t. Wes Anderson is my favorite modern filmmaker, so I’m not sure why I haven’t covered him previously. It’s possible I just haven’t found anyone to match him with. His style is so specific it’s hard to match him up to anyone. But I think Lubitsch is up to the challenge. This week’s films are:
Ernst Lubitsch – Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Wes Anderson – The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Both films I’ve seen before, but only once. But they are memorable films. Trouble in Paradise was recommended to me personally by Peter Bogdanovich, when I asked him about Lubitsch, and it is one of Lubitsch’s most beloved films. In contrast, I feel The Darjeeling Limited is one of Wes Anderson’s lesser known films, which is a shame, because it’s probably my favorite film of his.
Let’s get into it.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Trouble in Paradise focuses on Gaston and Lily, two con artists working their way across Europe, stealing whatever they can. When Gaston focuses in on a wealthy perfume maker as his next target, Lilly gets jealous of the relationship he has to maintain to con her. Gaston assures her it’s nothing, but as he gets deeper into the act, will he be able to maintain the separation between the character he’s playing and his own feelings?
Like the last Lubitsch film we covered, Design for Living, this film stars Miriam Hopkins, playing Lily, although her role here is a bit smaller than it was in the previous film. Playing Gaston is Herbert Marshall who isn’t terribly well-known today, but had a great career that lasted decades. Playing Madame Colet, the mark, is Kay Francis, another actor who isn’t remembered well today, but also had a great career. Lubitsch always got great performances and this film is no exception.
The film is set in Venice, and opens with a classic Lubitsch joke. A man takes some garbage from a can and places it on a boat. He begins rowing it down the river and begins a romantic song in Italian, just like a classic scene of a gondolier in any other movie set in Venice.
We meet the two crooks immediately, and they’re trying to con each other. Gaston is posing as a Baron, while Lily is posing as a countess. As they have dinner, they reveal to each other all the things they have managed to steal from each other throughout the evening: a watch, a wallet, a pin, even a garter belt. It’s a great scene, and a perfect introduction to Lubitsch. He really made movies like no one else. The two immediately fall in love and we get some subtle inneundo to insinuate they’re having sex without a sex scene. This film was still pre-code, which we’ve discussed before, and that means Lubitsch can do things that films just a few years later couldn’t get away with.
We then meet Madame Colet, the owner of a successful perfume company. We see her as strong and capable from the first moment she appears, in a board meeting where she smacks down the other board members. She’s completely in control and no one can question her. The film follows this with a montage of all her various servants responding to her with yes or no, showing us how she is waited on hand and foot. The sequence ends with Madame Colet looking at two bags. One is 60,000 francs, but she decides instead to buy the one that costs 120,000 francs.
This is another hallmark of Lubitsch films, strong women. It’s just effortless for him. It’s kind of amazing to see films today fail at this so regularly, when Lubitsch had it figured out 85 years ago. Madame Colet is a woman casually dating multiple men, but both of them bore her to tears, and they hate each other. This is played out on a night out at a show, when Madame Colet has brought the bag on a date with the Major, the other man, Francois tags along and tries to get in the way.
Also at the show are Gaston and Lily, who are planning to steal the bag. They are successful and Madame Colet puts an ad in the paper, assuming she lost it, offering a reward for 20,000 francs. Gaston and Lily see the ad and realize that is much more than they could make selling it on the black market. Gaston forms a plan.
At Madame Colet’s home, the foyer is filled with people hoping they have the bag. One man comes in and yells at Madame Colet for buying a bag for that much when people are starving. He has a thick accent and references Trotsky, identifying him as a communist, long before the red scare. He’s got a strong point, actually.
But then Gaston enters with the bag. Madame Colet is delighted. He further ingratiates himself to her by critiquing her makeup, telling her what shades she should wear. A bold move to try with someone in the beauty industry. But it works. She cautiously offers him the money, and he accepts, telling her a story about being formerly wealthy, and suddenly poor. A tale all to familiar in 1932, the height of the Great Depression. She invites him upstairs while she finds her checkbook.
While she does, he cases the room, watching where she keeps the checkbook, looking for a hidden safe. He gives her more reason to trust him by complimenting her on the antique furniture. She reveals that the bed in the room used to belong to her secretary, who has recently been fired. Gaston senses another opportunity, and asks Madame Colet if the checkbook might have been left in the safe. Madame Colet, oblivious to his motives, reveals the safe and opens it in front of him, which he uses as an opportunity to learn the combination. She doesn’t find the checkbook, but does reveal she has 100,000 francs in the home. Gaston once again sees an opportunity, telling her that in these uncertain times that’s far too little to have around the home, and that if he were her secretary, he’d ensure she had adequate liquidity. She hires him on the spot.
The intricacy of this scene is pulled off masterfully. Gaston builds his plan throughout the scene, initially only wanting his promised reward, but always pushing for a bit more, until finally finding a good angle with the secretary job. So the plan is clear, Gaston will build up the amount of money she keeps in the home, steal it and get out. With the trust of Madame Colet and control of her business affairs, it should be easy to pull off.
He even manages to hire Lily as his personal assistant, making it even easier. But of course, the plan can’t go off without a hitch. It turns out that Francois, one of the men that Madame Colet has been dating, was robbed by Gaston in Venice on the night that he met Lily. Further complicating matters is Madame Colet’s romantic interest in Gaston, and Lily’s anger at that interest, along with the suspicion of Madame Colet’s board members at all the changes that Gaston is making.
There’s a great scene here where Madame Colet calls Lily into her room during breakfast and offers her a raise. She also gives her instructions that she should leave the office at 5pm everyday and never work late. Madame Colet plays this as a way to keep her from being overworked, but Lily sees it for what it is: she wants to be alone with Gaston.
The romance proceeds, with the audience not sure if Gaston is playing a part or really falling in love. There’s a great scene where they are saying good night to each other. Their rooms are next door to each other. Madame Colet goes into her room, and closes the door. Gaston looks at her door, but then goes into his own, locking the door. Only then does Madame Colet lock her own door, not giving up on the night until Gaston really goes to bed.
The plan begins to unravel when Francois finally begins to recognize Gaston. At a garden party, he sees an ashtray in the shape of a gondola and has a realization. He goes to confront Gaston by asking him if he’s ever been to Venice. Gaston says no, then manages to change the subject by talking about other places he’s visited, and how wonderful Constantinople is. Gaston has also been confronted by Adolf, the board member, who is suspicious of his past as well.
Gaston jumps into action, going upstairs to his office, where Lily is located, telling her that they’ll have to take the 100,000 in the safe and get out tonight, Francois will eventually realize who he is. Lily agrees, and they make plans to exit the country on Spanish passports, which Lily will get from the consulate. They show their amazing skills at conning, coming up with how to fake their way through getting out of the country quickly and easily. The scene is fast and frantic, and classic Lubitsch.
But there’s a complication, Gaston has genuinely fallen in love. He’s waiting for Madame Colet to leave for a dinner engagement, but she doesn’t want to go, she wants to stay with him. Eventually, he wants her to stay, but then once she knows she has him, she wants to go to remind him that she’s in control. She tells him that she’ll be back at 11, and heavily hints that they’ll consummate their relationship then.
Gaston has every reason to take the money and leave, but he doesn’t, remaining in the home, waiting for Madame Colet to return. But Lily has figured all of this out, and arrives at the home, to break up with Gaston, and take the money for herself.
On her way out, she almost runs into Madame Colet, who is returning from her evening, after Francois has finally realized exactly who he is. After an altercation between all three in the love triangle, Gaston realizes he can’t stay, because he’ll endanger Madame Colet.
He leaves with Lily, and we see a mirror of the same scene we saw at the end of Design For Living. The characters sit in the back of a car. As they drive off, Lily reveals the 120,000 franc handbag that was the focus of the first part of the film. Gaston reveals the 100,000 that Lily stole before she left. They fall in love again, and the film ends.
This is an essential film, and except for To Be Or Not To Be (which we’ll cover eventually, I’m sure), probably Lubitsch’s best film. The film is hilarious, as all of Lubitsch’s films are, and the emotions are real and relateable. We understand why Madame Colet would fall in love with Gaston, why Gaston would fall in love with Madame Colet, and why Lily would try to stop it.
The addition of a caper is a natural fit for Lubitsch. His films work best when there’s some kind of underlying subterfuge. To Be Or Not To Be is a good example, as is The Shop Around the Corner. All of those films including today’s film involve the characters pretending to be something they’re not as part of the plot. It’s a good device for Lubitsch, as it allows his characters to be more dynamic, and gives the audience more to keep track of, which I think adds to their engagement.
It’s an intricate film, well acted, well written, and exceptionally well-directed. A total treasure.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
This film follows three brothers on a train in India, meeting up a year after their father’s death. Their relationship is strained at best, and it’s hard for them to connect. When the eldest brother reveals that he has found their estranged mother at a convent nearby, the brothers will have to face all their demons on the trip.
The Darjeeling Limited is a Wes Anderson film, and for someone with only a handful of films, most of them pretty well known, this is definitely one of his lesser known films. Before this was Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and he followed it up with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, his stop motion animated film. His early films like Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums were celebrated, and his more recent films like Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel are equally so. But this one falls into a lesser known part of his career.
The film stars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman, with Anjelica Houston as their mother. Owen Wilson plays Francis, the oldest brother who has recently been in a motorcycle accident. He spends most of the film with his entire head in bandages. He is the organizer of the trip and has brought his assistant along to help them plan itineraries. Adrien Brody plays Peter, the middle brother. He’s the only one that’s married, and has a baby on the way, but he’s not sure he wants to be a father. Jason Schwartzman plays Jack, the youngest brother. He has a girlfriend that his brother’s don’t like, and it doesn’t even seem like he likes her that much. He shows his brother’s a story early in the film that they see as autobiographical, but he insists is fictional.
We start out far behind the characters in this film. We learn that they are meeting up after not seeing each other since ‘the funeral’, but we don’t know who’s funeral. In addition, they seem uncomfortable around each other, indicating they haven’t seen each other in awhile. Francis takes a leadership role, trying to get everyone to agree to things in advance. He asks for these agreements at regular intervals through the film. He goes as far as to order dinner for everyone.
The brothers clearly don’t fully trust each other, as every time one of them leaves the tables, the other’s tell secrets to each other that they instruct the other brother not to tell. Of course, none of those secrets stay secret. One interesting thing is that the cinematography rarely shows all three brothers together in this early part of the film. They are almost always separated from each other visually.
The film moves a mile a minute. My normal notetaking just couldn’t keep up with how quickly information came out about the characters. It’s woven into every piece of dialogue. Wes Anderson films are generally dialogue dense, but this one at 90 minutes of run time packs in an impressive amount of words.
Jack gets the most of a subplot here, as he starts flirting with an Indian stewardess on the train, eventually having sex with her in the bathroom. He continues to pursue her, which she welcomes and refuses in equal measure, feeling trapped on the train.
Francis has the entire trip planned, and drives the brothers forward to every stop, focusing on spiritual journeys. But their journey’s feel fairly safe, a series of canned tourist stops. But when the train stops in the middle of the desert, Francis reveals to his brothers that he has found their mother, and if they stay on the train, they’ll be there in 6 days. The brothers wonder if she’ll even want to see them. They send her a letter, and receive a response that she doesn’t want to see them right then.
Meanwhile, the brothers continue to bicker over their personal lives and how they relate to their father. Francis continually notes that Peter has little things of their fathers, like his sunglasses, and his razor. Peter, frustrated, eventually tells his brothers that their father told them he was the favorite while dying. This starts a huge brawl between the brothers that spills out into the cabin. The steward has had enough with this, and an earlier incident involving a poisonous snake. He kicks them off the train. Jack takes the opportunity to say goodbye to the Indian woman he’s infatuated with. But then the train leaves and the brothers are on their own.
They go into the wilderness to start a fire for the night, and Francis asks them to perform a ritual with a peacock feather that he’s been trying to get them to do the entire film, but they all do it wrong. Emotionally, Francis gives up at this point in the film. It’s an important moment for him, as he’s been driving this adventure the entire time.
But things change the next day. As they walk down the road with their massive pile of luggage, they see a trio of small boys trying to cross a fast moving stream on a raft. They realize quickly that the raft isn’t going to make it. As it tips over, they run, trying to save them. They all dive into the water, trying to save one brother each. Jack and Francis make it to the shore, but as Peter struggles with the child he is saving, the raft breaks free and sweeps him down the river.
The brothers rush down the stream, finding Peter climbing out near a gate. Peter is bloodied, but the boy is dead. The brothers carry the boy back to their village in rural India. The father is devastated, and the brothers spend the night in the village. They next day, as they’re preparing to leave, the brothers are invited to the funeral.
During the funeral, we get taken back to their father’s funeral, and we see what happened. On the way, Peter demands they stop at a mechanics shop that houses their father’s car. Peter wants to pick it up. His brother’s go with him. They argue with the mechanic that the car should be ready, the mechanic informs them that they’re waiting for a part and the car isn’t ready. The brother’s get frantic, Peter tries to start the car anyway. They open the trunk and find a suitcase, it’s the same suitcase that Jack has been carrying the entire film, and in the same style as all the brother’s luggage. This tells us that all the luggage they are carrying belonged to their father. Jack takes it and begins changing clothes. Francis retains some dignity and takes a phone call from the funeral, saying they can’t wait. Peter insists his brothers help him push the car outside, and they do, but it still won’t start.
The car comes back to take them to the funeral, and they go. We are taken back to the boys funeral and we see the whole ceremony. The villagers burn the body on a pyre, and then everyone washes themselves in the river. The brothers wear their pajamas, which is the closest they have to local funeral wear. We see their catharsis beginning. Once they have left the train and get out into the real India, they begin to change.
They get to the airport, assuming they will all go home. They each make a phone call. Francis calls his assistant who came along, who he offended when they were kicked off the train. Jack calls his girlfriend, who he plans to meet in Italy. Peter calls his wife, who didn’t know he was going to be in India. He learns that she’s having a boy, and it’s due soon. In the bathroom, Francis takes off his bandages, revealing the heavy damage to his face. He says “I suppose I still have some healing to do.” It’s an incredibly important line in this film about loss, and mourning.
But instead of getting on the plane, they go to see their mother. She seems happy to see them, but still has responsibilities to cover. The brothers admit all of the things that they haven’t admitted to each other. She takes on the role of the leader, ordering food for everyone, and asking for everyone to make agreements, just like Francis. She tells them the next day that they’ll all get up early the next morning, and make plans for the future. But when they wake up the next morning, their mother is gone.
Rather than dwelling on it, the brother’s go out and do the peacock ritual with the one feather they have left, and head back to another train. It leaves as they enter the station, and they have to run for it, carrying their baggage. They realize they can’t make it while carrying the bags, and they throw them away. This is a cathartic moment, and propels the brothers into the future, ready to heal. They literally discard their baggage to move on.
The metaphor is somewhat heavy-handed, but it works here, because they’ve been carrying the baggage the entire film. And once we know that all the bags belonged to their father, it makes it all the more significant that they can discard it.
As the credits roll, we see the train traveling forward, not seeing where it’s going.
This is a deeply emotional film. The characters are going through something, trying to find their way through their lives, and put it back together after a tragedy. It’s clear that their father meant the world to them and they’re struggling with his sudden and unexpected loss. Their mother abandoning them has made things even harder.
It also takes a loving look at the nation of India. I’ve been lucky enough to have some really close friends from India, and have gotten a window into their culture and people. The film is a love letter to India as much as it is anything else, and after I watched it, I just wanted to reach out to my Indian friends and tell them how important they were to my life. And I did so.
Wes Anderson is my favorite modern director. His style is so specific and playful, and his characters are so eccentric, but they always seem to get at some major truths. I appreciate all of his films, but this one might very well be my favorite.
The Double Feature
I think I’ve finally found a match for Wes Anderson. He and Lubitsch just work together as a double feature. Both involve a lot of fast talking, interesting characters, real emotions, and lots of laughs.
I had never directly compared them before, but the main difference between these two is the era they worked in. Anderson is a master of cinematography. Heavy use of perfectly centered frames and lots of characters looking right into the camera lens. Lubitsch was a master of editing, using cuts between scenes to add to the story, and even make jokes.
It’s possible Lubitsch would have developed a unique visual style as well, but the medium hadn’t really evolved much at that point. Lubitsch did plenty to advance film regardless.
It was really nice to get back to Wes Anderson this week. I hadn’t watched a film of his for quite awhile, and sitting down for The Darjeeling Limited was like getting under a comfy blanket. It also reminded me of the important people in my life, and that’s always welcome.
So what shall we do for next week? I think I’ll aim at FilmStruck again, and I’m going to look at documentaries. I haven’t gone deeply into documentaries yet. And it’s time. Next week’s films will be:
Les Blank – Burden of Dreams (1982)
Errol Morris – The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Both are films I’ve seen before, and both are amazing documentaries. One about the special kind of madness that comes from making a film, and the other about a crime and everything that followed.
See you next week.