Criterion Sunday 157: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

There are a lot of charges that get levelled at Wes Anderson, his filmmaking and his films — often feelings that I’ve held at some time or another — which is usually around the fastidiousness with which the sets are designed, or the shots are framed, about the sense that emotion has been overwhelmed by the constructedness of the places within which they’re shared, stuff like that. And as I said, sometimes I really do feel that, but while ultimately he may have an outcome very clearly in mind, he’s also canny enough to hire actors who are able to get at something, and it’s something that in Royal Tenenbaums feels particularly deep and sad. Anjelica Huston and Gene Hackman really underpin this whole enterprise, as Etheline and Royal, the estranged heads of this particular family, and it all seems to first come together in the scene where Royal confronts her outside his building, in front of a Japanese embassy building, at first saying he’s dying then retracting that when she makes what he considers too much of a scene, all conveyed in small gestures with a largely static camera.

Thinking about the fact that I recall where it takes place, I don’t happen to think that these details, however elaborately placed, are always all that deep. The embassy has a zen garden after all, which we learn about (and becomes relevant) later, but also that idea of zen seems metaphorically perhaps to be juxtaposed with this emotionally-charged scene that plays out in front. The film is replete with such details, little flourishes around the edge of the frame, but they feel more like a crutch to help the actors, because it’s in them that the film lives. I’ve seen it many many times, but for the first half an hour I don’t particularly feel connected to any of them — they seem at first to be just a set of attributes that Anderson accretes, like the clubs that Max Fischer is part of in Rushmore, more a substitute for character than an expression of it. And when overlaid with the just-so music choices, it almost feels manipulative.

It’s just that, as the film progresses, a sense of this family’s atomisation and the way that every character, deep down (or not so deep in some cases), is fundamentally broken becomes overwhelming. And it’s at that point that I start to go with it, for all that I resist Anderson’s “quirks”. It’s at this point that the children, who seem at first to be so programmatic in their construction (a troubled sports star, an angst-filled artist, an over-compensating business savant), come centre stage, and even actors who I’ve never really felt particularly strongly towards, people like Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow, become so affecting, perhaps because of this. And so the expression of their pain, in conjunction with the sets, the props, the music choices, becomes really, almost strangely, comforting. It’s a film that seems to express the idea that everything can become alright, bearable and liveable despite all the pain.

What I’m left with, then, as something that I find difficult to therefore integrate into this world, is how white it is, Danny Glover’s accountant Henry Sherman aside. All the people of colour are supporting, in almost servile ways, emotional supports for damaged, rich white people. Too many of these minor characters, whom I recall as being treated rather generously, in fact seem rather the butt of jokes upon rewatching the film. How can I sympathise with Royal’s character (which is clearly the intention) when his idea of tearing it up and rebelling against the system seems to involve throwing water balloons at the “Gypsy Cabs”, amongst other things? I don’t know, this may be a blindspot for me, or it may be for Anderson, and it leaves me feeling slightly less generous, but on the whole this is a deeply affecting family drama dressed up as spritely comic fluff.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This disc is packed with little extras, primary among them being a short video documentary portrait directed Albert Maysles (with Antonio Ferrera and Larry Kamerman), With the Filmmaker (2001), in which you really get a sense of how fastidious Wes Anderson is about the details. He also opens up about his process, and the sense (which I think is apparent from the film) of how he feels less obsessed with cinematography and set design and more open to collaboration with actors, although you certainly don’t feel that from all the scenes of him, say, colouring in the hair on one of his brother’s illustrations that will be glimpsed maybe for a brief split-second in the corner of one shot. I end up feeling that Wes Anderson is just the kind of guy I imagined he’d be, and I think that’s a good thing?
  • There are two cut scenes in fairly rough form, one showing Eli Cash’s wife and children (incidentally the wife appears to be Olivia Williams, who starred in Rushmore, though perhaps I’m just wishing it were), presumably excised because that was just a little too much detail that was distracting, and another showing a dinner sequence in which Henry romances Etheline.
  • There are a number of ‘scrapbook’ entries, including some evocative production stills, as well as details of all Eric Chase Anderson’s drawings (the ones that Richie draws of his sister, as well as the ones that adorn his room’s walls), the book and magazine covers with their blocks of Helvetica text, a few choice storyboard pages showing Anderson’s clear visual sense of how the finished film would look, and a short radio interview with the artist Miguel Calderón whose large-scale paintings so memorably adorn Eli’s home.
  • The disc features a series of short interviews with all the leading cast members, reflecting on their characters in the film and their work with Wes Anderson.
  • One of the more interesting extras is an entire episode of the fictional show-within-a-show presented by Peter Bradley (an interviewer apparently modelled on Charlie Rose, and clearly a bit of a creep given we see him in the film at one point fondling Margot’s breast in a backstage scene). His interview is with many of the minor characters, including the Pallanas (father and son Kumar and Dipak), as well as the actors who play the Indian tennis player Richie breaks down while playing, and a guy with the surname of Tenenbaum who’s been in all Anderson’s films. It all feels pretty authentic, especially in the way it’s so excruciating at times to watch, as Bradley messes up all the names, and can’t seem to finish a coherent line of questioning.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Danny Glover; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 24 March 2002 (and later at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 16 June 2002, as well as a number of times on DVD subsequently, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 27 October 2019).

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