Fox Searchlight Pictures
My face is unforgettable. From the moment I was born, the bright fuchsia wrapping over the right side of my face, my nose and a little swatch of the left side just under my eye announced to the room immediately: well shit, she’s going to be different. I’m graced with what is known as a “port wine stain” birthmark, a cutesy term for explaining that it kind of looks like someone spilled a glass of wine (burst blood vessels) on my face and couldn’t mop it up fast enough before it soaked into my upholstery. Tragic, since this is expensive canvas.
My birthmark is connected (though not all are) to a larger illness called Sturge-Weber Syndrome, a condition that also means those burst blood vessels caused glaucoma in my right eye and a hardened capillary ridge on the right side of my brain that “lights up” whenever it pleases for rounds of excruciating migraines. Sturge-Weber is not only a recent discovery, only studied since the 1980s, but a fairly rare occurrence, affecting 1 in every 400,000 births; I’ve never met or seen another person who has the disease or a facial port wine stain.
So imagine my surprise and curiosity watching the trailer, and eventually sitting down for The Grand Budapest Hotel – here we have Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), all milkmaid braids and the silhouette of Mexico upon her face. Purple and prominent, though not nearly as large, Agatha has been afflicted with the facial birthmark that I know all too well. Dainty and deliberately shaped like our neighbor nation to the south, it’s a bit more whimsical than what I’m working with, but here she is on screen. I’ve been Wes Anderson’d. And I love it.
Agatha and I couldn’t be more different. She’s a young baker living and surviving in 1930s Zubrowka with her fiancée in the midst of a war. I’m a 24-year-old entertainment writer in New York City with a boyfriend and a dog and a couple of roommates.
But I can’t help wondering if she ever had days growing up where she looked in the mirror and wondered if Mexico’s coastline was going to recede, or if the pleasant lavender of her right cheek was going to flare into a violent violet and stay that way. If the patrons who came into Mendl’s Bakery saw her working deftly behind the counter – kneading dough into those intricate little pastel pastry towers they loved – looked past her beautiful work, narrowed in on her unusual face and loudly asked “What happened to you?”.
“What’s wrong with your face?” is a less heard, but surprisingly often-uttered runner up. If she’s always as cool and collected as her character suggests, then she likely explains that it’s just a birthmark and carries on with her baking; if she’s having a particularly stressful day, it may come out in more impolite, creatively worded terms.
I wonder if she, as a young woman walking through the town to get to the Grand Budapest, gets unsolicited advice from strangers on how to present herself and cover up her birthmark – even though makeup doesn’t actually work. (Not sure if Dermablend existed in the 1930s, but if it did, she probably heard enough about it, too.) And strangely, also gets praise from complete strangers for not covering it up and being a brave enough soul to walk around like that every day. Life is complicated in Zubrowka, life is complicated in New York.
I found it interesting that Anderson chose to slap Agatha with a facial birthmark and only give a brief acknowledgement to it. The reference is blink-and-you’ll miss it; Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) is speaking to Zero (Tony Revolori) about how he’s thrilled that his protégé has decided to marry such a lovely girl, even when she lives with the adversity of long hours at the bakery and a birthmark on half her face. It’s a refreshing moment for its brevity and honesty.
Gustave makes no qualms throughout the film about how enchanted he is by Agatha and her entire being, but he still recognizes that she’s flawed. He’s not going to pretend it isn’t there, and up until this moment, it’s frankly odd that it hasn’t been mentioned at all; but, it’s understandable. Zero doesn’t because he’s blinded by love. Agatha doesn’t because she’s so, so deeply over it. When Gustave makes his remark, it’s done so casually, as if he were speaking about her blonde hair or the shoes she happened to be wearing; it’s never spoken of again. She isn’t defined by the striking feature of her face, but by her loyalty to Gustave and Zero, and her courage during their exploits.
And while Agatha is not real, her face is one I see in the mirror every day. Did fending off morons with invasive questions and bad advice build her character and give her that poise? Did half-hearted assurances that it wasn’t noticeable at all and so unique lend herself to appreciating people like Gustave and Zero?
It’s a struggle that Anderson intentionally left internal, but I know it outside and in all the same.