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Chapter 1: This one girl
In Mississippi, I once met this one girl who enjoyed very many different kinds of tea and also peacock feathers. She often had to explain to people that though her face always looked like it was frowning, she was almost always not all that unhappy.
This one time, several months after I first met this girl and not long before I was to leave Oxford forever, she bought me a copy of The LIttle Prince as a goodbye present.
She wrote a note inside letting me know that the secret truth that she had learned during our time together was that I was, in fact, the little prince.
It was one of the better presents.
The other thing about this girl is that she told me once that she never really liked very many movies.
Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, she said. She said that movie was basically a true story about her family.
This is how I first came to watch my first Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums.
Chapter 2: The Innumerable Failures of Love
The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s third feature-length film after Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, concerns a family of geniuses not all that dissimilar to the Glass family—a brilliant, and occasionally depressive, brood that featured in several of J.D. Salinger’s short stories1. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum, the father. Anjelica Huston plays Etheline Tenenbaum, the mother. In an extended prologue, we learn how Royal left the family early on and how Etheline, through a precise and exacting regimen, raised their three children into the very model of modern major child prodigies. In this extended prologue, we also learn that this is the type of film that features an extended prologue.
The Royal Tenenbaums is divided into chapters. Each chapter begins with an insert 2. This insert takes the form of a chapter’s opening page. If one were so inclined, one could read this page and note that it corresponds more or less exactly to the scene we are about to see in the film. Anderson once before said that all of his films, no matter how they begin, end up as fables. The Royal Tenenbaums, though, is the only one that appears to have been literally adapted from an imaginary storybook.
When we encounter the Tenenbaum children later in their lives, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong. Chas, Richie, and Margot are played, respectively, by Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and each of them, more or less literally, find themselves in an extended montage of feeling entirely at sea. They have all, despite their promising starts, arrived at a point of failure. This is also true of their father, Royal Tenenbaum, who has run out of money and time. Not long after his eviction from his home in a hotel, he learns that Etheline is considering remarrying. This inspires him to spin for Etheline, and his children, a tale of his impending death in the hopes of bringing the family back together. “I’ve got a pretty bad case of cancer,” he says. He doesn’t bother getting too specific. That being, of course, the great giveaway of any lie.
His plan is not entirely unsuccessful.
The Royal Tenenbaums only contains one actual attempt at suicide, but, so far as I can tell, everyone is looking for a way out. Margot, married to a moribund Bill Murray, spends most of her time in the bathroom. Ritchie, broken by his unrequited love for Margot, has run away to sea. Chaz, still traumatized by his wife’s death in a plane crash, runs constant fire drills in his home so that he and his children might maintain the proper preparedness for the inevitable need to escape from one or another of life’s little terrors. There’s also this one falcon called Mordecai. He lives on the roof of the Tenenbaum’s old home. Let me tell you. He almost steals the film. Really. Look at him go. Seriously. Look at that little guy go.
As it happens, each of the Tenenbaum children, in their final retreat from life, will escape back into the relative safety of their childhood home. There they will encounter their mother, who seems to have gotten on just fine without them, and their father, who seems desperate to introduce himself back into their lives through a bewildering combination of apology and reckless abandon.
Chapter 3: You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown
One of the dangers of a Wes Anderson film is that the diorama he has so carefully constructed—and which so particularly captures a very particular kind of not exactly unreal life—will collapse under its creator’s suffocating precision.
One of the ways in which The Royal Tenenbaums avoids this trap is through music.
There’s the moment, for example, when Margot, returning home in a cloud of depression, gets accompanied by a sad string of solitary piano notes pulled from the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Or the moment not too long after, when Ritchie—convinced of the futility of his love and his life—attempts suicide in the bathroom. Anderson plays overs this scene an Elliot Smith song called, “Needle in the Hay.” It’s worth noting, however appropriate the song may at first have seemed, it now seems much too appropriate. Elliot Smith committed suicide in 2003, two years after the release of this film. Somehow this accidental echo, this collision of reality and artifice, suits the film even as it darkens it.
Chapter 4: Mordecai Comes Home
Something you need to understand about Wes Anderson’s films is that they always function as a kind of window on the endless tug-of-war between the forces of order and chaos. Here, in one corner, we have Etheline, who shows her love for her children by carefully scheduling their lives, and, in the other corner, we have Royal, who demonstrates his love by, seemingly at random, causing his children great harm. At one point, while in the midst of playing war with his children, he turns on the son on whose side he was meant to be fighting. “We’re on the same team!” a young Chas screams. “Hahahaha,” says Royal.
Ritchie keeps a pet falcon on the roof. This is the aforementioned Mordecai. Mordecai lives in a small cage and wears a tiny leather helmet. At one point, Ritchie sets Mordecai free and Anderson follows him on his flight across the city. This may be the first and only time in any Wes Anderson film that you will see a shot lose its focus or fail to frame its subject precisely. Mordecai soars and turns among the city’s towering brownstones, and it is all Anderson can do just to keep up with the little guy. We feel such a rush of freedom in these scenes, and we understand that this feeling, exactly this feeling, is what the film and its many children have been searching for this whole time. Everyone here has tried, in one way or another, to fly the coop. And they have all met some trauma in the world that has brought them back home again, afraid of the world and its many wild terrors. Just as Mordecai, later in the film, returns home, his feathers turned white from some fright he has suffered out there in the big, bad world.
Chapter 5: Go Garbage Truck, Go!
The Royal Tenenbaums I believe, along with Grand Budapest Hotel, remains my favorite of Anderson’s films. I think it has something to do with the way it never quite finds the balance its seeking. Its characters, despite reaffirming the endless well of love they share for each other, never quite find themselves on solid ground. This is because, of course, love doesn’t really make these characters safe. As Margot says, at one point, to Ritchie, “I think we’re just gonna to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that.”
For much of this film, Royal spends his time trying to wake his children up from the doldrums which have so thoroughly engulfed them. He begins doing this because he wants their love as a treasure, I think, with which to win back the affections of Etheline. Or, perhaps, to be both more precise and vague, to win back some long vanished idea of the man he imagined himself to be.
There is no answer to the questions Anderson poses in this film. There is no way to be both fully alive and entirely safe from harm. There is no way to fly without risking a crash back to earth. I think of Chas, early in this film, hustling his children out of bed, of the comfort of their home, in preparation for some imagined terror. And then I think of Chas at the end of this film, with his wildcat of a father and his children by his side, the bunch of them pilfering a ride on the back of a garbage truck. You see in the way they swing loose, in the way the wind pulls at their hair, that they have found if not an answer to the questions of their lives, at least some kind of peace with the inevitability of that failure. I think of them there holding on tight and soaring a few feet off the ground and I smile that life, and Wes, has afforded them such a moment of breathless joy.