I have been on a Wes Anderson marathon lately, revisiting almost everything I had already seen and finally watching the rest. However, the idea for this article came to me when I saw the illustration below, made by Wes’ brother, Eric Chase Anderson, in the book The Wes Anderson Collection. For anyone interested in fashion and film, a lot of the appeal of the 11-set Louis Vuitton luggage emblazoned with playful palm trees and colourful animals that appears in The Darjeeling Limited has to do with the Louis Vuitton name. After all, Louis Vuitton is what it is and Wes Anderson is a director who has an obsessive eye for details – “I guess they make the best suitcases,” the director explained his choice. But, as far as I’m concerned, the reason it truly stands apart is Eric Anderson’s artwork of perfectly painted details. It blends seamlessly into Wes Anderson’s distinctive, self-contained universe. A universe that, in this case, includes a specifically constructed train that was fully functioning, filled with handmade furnishings and props, and meticulously painted by local artisans. It is a storybook version of India that is more a state of mind, a metaphorical space than a geographic one. The Wes Anderson World.
Cowritten by Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, Darjeeling tells the story of the Whitman brothers (played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman), who travel by train through India, hoping to reconnect with one another, come to terms with their father’s death, and track down their mother, Patricia (Anjelica Huston), who didn’t attend the funeral and is now a nun in an Indian religious order somewhere. Anderson had had this idea about three bothers travelling on a train for some time, but it was only after a screening of the restored version of Jean Renoir’s The River, by Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, that he decided to set his movie in India. Other two influences were Satyajit Ray’s films and Louis Malle’s documentaries about India.
Eric Chase Anderson’s artwork for the Whitmans’ father’s custom Louis Vuitton luggage
A center idea in Darjeeling is the notion of being an American abroad. They wouldn’t adapt. They are “kind of sort of” interested in the country around them, but not really, as the writer of the book The Wes Anderson Collection, Matt Zoller Seitz, remarks in his interview with the director, covering this film. The Whitman brothers show a certain interest, but they are not exactly open-minded, hardly anything comes into their worldview. They remain themselves. Furthermore, they carry these familiar objects around that have a meaning to them, mostly things that had belonged to their father, clinging to the illusion of control.
The Louis Vuitton luggage attests to all of that. Both elegant and absurd, the luggage epitomizes the timeless and quirky aesthetic of Anderson’s films’ world. Wes Anderson is a director in command of everything that appears on screen. And everything that appears on screen is aesthetically pleasing — from his knack for singularly odd colours, to his penchant for symmetry and composition. Nothing is accidental. In the Anderson universe, characters are defined by their clothes. You can tell you are watching an Anderson film by the costumes. His characters live in perfectly styled, make-believe worlds, and it is usually the tiny details that make each character look precisely quirky, and, almost always, to a certain extent, all-American, be it in sportswear, navy blazers and preppy ties, or fringed western attire.
“I’m not going to theorize on what the symbolism of luggage is,” Marc Jacobs said in an interview for The Observer right after the film’s release. But let us talk about that candy-coloured, monogrammed impedimenta made by the designer, who also outfitted the Whitman brothers in their uniform of grey suits, during his tenure at Louis Vuitton. Throughout the unfamiliar locale, the Whitman brothers’ mountain of harlequin, custom-made luggage, which had belonged to their recently deceased father, serves as a kind of reassurance, emotional support. “They’re on this spiritual journey,” Marc Jacobs said, “and it’s sort of like they’re carrying the remnants of their father’s life with them wherever they go”. Anderson envisioned the bags “right down to the colour of the lining and the sort of fixtures within the luggage that held a tennis racket or tennis balls and types of pockets that these suitcases should have,” according to Jacobs. Down to the tiniest detail. That’s what makes the Anderson world so special. His films really do not speak to everyone, and I think that’s a great thing.
The Whitman brothers, as accurate a depiction of the American traveller as they may be, do go through some sort of a spiritual transformation by the end of the film though, because they leave their father’s luggage behind in order to be able to catch the train taking them to the airport, back to their lives, old but (maybe) new.
photos: movie stills (Fox Searchlight Pictures, Collage Cinemagraphique, American Empirical Pictures), except for the second one: by me, taken from the book The Wes Anderson Collection