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Film Essay: Royal and the Tenenbaums: A Tale of Fathers and Children
March 30, 2015
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), directed by quintessential auteur Wes Anderson, explores the unique and poignant stories of the Tenenbaum family, the most relatable being the relationship between the absent patriarch, Royal, and his three dysfunctional children: Chas, Margot, and Richie. The little, poor parenting that Royal exercised over the children when they were younger has deeply affected them as adults, especially Chas, who grows up to be angry and jealous of his family, and Margot, who is closed-off and secretive. Richie, Royal’s favourite child and the most well-adjusted of the children, becomes the mediator between Royal and the rest of the family. The complicated relationships Royal has with each member of his family and the effect of his lack of parenting in the development of his children are exhibited through the witty script, omniscient narrator, incredibly lush production design, precise cinematography, and creative montages in the film. As Royal tries to reconnect with his family after years of treating them with indifference, the reactions of Chas and Margot speak of long-held resentment and pain.
The first and most crucial scene in The Royal Tenenbaums is Royal telling the children that he and their mother Etheline are separating. This scene introduces the characters, setting, and conflict quickly and unforgettably. The placing of the actors in the family dining room immediately builds an emotional tale. Royal sits at one end of the table while the children crowd around the other end. The long, polished wood table sets up a physical and symbolic divide between the parent and children. Margot and Richie seem out of place in their iconic play clothes but Royal, in his tailored tweed jacket and dark sunglasses, matches the imposing dark red, orange, and brown décor of the room. Chas wears a suit also, but his is grey. His choice of dress shows how he desires to be like his businessman-like father, but later we see how this dream does not pan out. Margot’s body language is also very telling. She sits hunched over during the conversation, with her hands in her lap, while everyone else has their arms on the table. Already, she exhibits being closed-off and feeling uncomfortable around her father. The camera staging of the conversation sets up a division between Royal and the children as well. Shots alternate between a medium long shot of Royal, the dining table, and empty velvet chairs with a more crowded medium shot of the three children in one frame. This creates an emotional distance for the viewer when looking at Royal and a closeness or affinity felt with the kids. Royal answers questions that Chas, Margot, and Richie have about the separation but while he tries to put them at ease, he insinuates that the children had some part in the end of their parents’ relationship. When Margot asks, “Is it our fault?” Royal replies, “Obviously we made certain sacrifices as a result of having children, but, uh, no. Lord, no.” By acknowledging that having children was a sort of sacrifice and hesitating after, Royal plants the seed of insecurity in his three young children.
The rest of the initial exposition of the film, presented in an extended montage, shows the children growing up with their loving mother. Royal pops in and out of their lives, wrecking emotional damage each time he stops by. Young Chas, who has a “preternatural understanding of international finance,” as the narrator tells us, negotiates the purchase of his father’s summerhouse as a child. When Royal and the boys play with BB guns outside this house, Royal shoots Chas in the hand, even though they are on the same team. The pellet is forever lodged between two knuckles of Chas’s hand. While Royal physically injures his oldest son, he undermines Margot’s feelings with words. He constantly refers to Margot as his “adopted daughter,” as if he does not accept her as truly his own. On her eleventh birthday, the children enact Margot’s first play. Royal only has criticism for the young playwright, which causes Margot to leave the party early. To add insult to injury, Royal’s wrapped gift, which Margot returns to him before leaving, is unmistakably a ball. Clearly, Royal did not even know what to get for his daughter for her birthday. The worst thing that Royal does to Chas and Margot, however, is to show favouritism to Richie, proving that he could treat his other children better but chooses not to do so. Royal takes Richie out to do father-son things, like bet on dogfights, while the other children are excluded from these activities. A short scene where Royal and Richie come home in a cab, laughing loudly, is preceded by a shot of Chas and Margot looking sadly out the windows of their home. Later, when Royal invites his adult children to visit his mother’s grave with him, Margot remarks that she had never been invited before. Royal says that it was because she was not Margot’s “real” grandmother. The abuse and neglect that Royal heaps onto Chas and Margot affects their promising potential in business and writing, respectively, for the narrator tells the audience, “virtually all memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster.”
Royal’s unkind treatment of his children comes back to hurt him in the future. When he is kicked out of the hotel where he was staying for years, Royal decides to try and worm his way back into the family, partly out of jealousy over Etheline and Henry's relationship and partly because he has no money and no where else to go. However, Royal has been alienated from his family for a long time. The narrator states that no one from the Tenenbaum family has spoken to Royal in three years. In one flashback, during Richie’s last tennis match, Royal is seen sitting in the back of the stands alone while the rest of the family sit together in a box. Throughout the rest of the film, Royal has to deal with the resentment he fostered in Chas and Margot and try to reconnect with the family.
After Royal lies and tells Etheline that he has cancer, the children are gathered together at the house so that Royal can ask them to welcome him back into the family. This scene echoes the first one in the film in that Royal addresses his children while seated and no one else is present. However, Royal’s authority is subverted by Chas, who does not sit on the couch opposite his father with his siblings but stands by the window in the back of the room instead. Royal tries to impart a serious tone, telling the children he has only six weeks to make amends with them, but Chas yawns, scoffs, and flips through a book in order to show his disdain and disrespect toward his father. Later, in another flashback, we find out that Chas filed a lawsuit against Royal for stealing from his company and got his father disbarred. Chas refuses to accept Royal back into the family and does not allow him to meet his young grandsons, Ari and Uzi.
The relationship between Chas and his sons mirrors Chas’s childhood. Young Chas used to wear suits like his father did. Ari and Uzi wear red tracksuits to match their father. Later, Chas becomes jealous of the time that his children spend with Royal, although he is also paranoid about their safety. In one artfully composed shot, when Royal and the children visit the family cemetery plot, Chas and Royal argue while the two little boys are visually and symbolically caught between the two characters. Chas is angry that Ari and Uzi call Royal “Pappy” and that the three go off and have reckless fun—go-carting, shoplifting, and watching dogfights—just as Richie and Royal used to do. Deep down perhaps, Chas feels excluded all over again. He clearly still resents Richie as well; after discovering a large poster of Richie’s tennis magazine cover in his room, Chas immediately turns it around so that he does not have to look at it. When Richie comes home after receiving news of Royal’s illness, Chas does not greet his brother at the door with the rest of his family. Instead, he waves from the same window that he used to look out and enviously watch his brother and father coming home from another trip to the city. Chas’s pain is compounded by the recent death of his wife for whenever she is mentioned, Chas storms away. This causes him to behave angrily throughout the film.
If Chas’s reaction to Royal’s parenting is anger, Margot’s reaction is being closed-off and secretive. In the initial, childhood montage of The Royal Tenenbaums, Margot’s bedroom door is the only one that is closed, with “keep away” signs and a padlock. Her brothers’ doors are open. The narrator mentions that no one in the family knows that Margot smokes cigarettes and that Margot once disappeared and came back with half a finger missing, as illustrated by a single shot of a four-fingered, pink glove. This story is not explained until later in the movie, when Margot tells Ari and Uzi that when she went to find her real parents, they accidentally chopped off her finger. It seems that both of her “fathers” have hurt her in some way. She endures Royal’s neglect throughout her childhood and uses it against him later. When Margot finds out about Royal’s cancer, she is not particularly moved by the news, noting to Eli, “We’re not actually related.” Later, when Royal is kicked out of the house again, he tells Margot to remember that Henry Sherman is not her father. She witheringly replies, “Neither are you,” throwing his lifetime rejection of her claim to the family back at him.
Many secrets and unexplained disappearances are revealed when Margot’s husband, Raleigh, and Richie hire a detective to investigate Margot’s affair. What follows is another Andersonian montage of Margot’s childhood secrets, her first marriage, and shocking affairs. This completely upsets Raleigh and Richie, who have probably only known Margot as cold and aloof. This detachment that Margot has from family and friends is shown by some of the composition of actors in several shots of the film. When Doctor McClury addresses the family about Royal’s health, Margot is seen standing away from the rest of the family in the corner of the hallway. She does the same in the hospital when the family crowds around Richie’s hospital bed. Her emotional distance is echoed by her physical position in relation to everyone else.
Royal’s desire to reconnect with his family, initially for ulterior motives, does begin to change him as a person. When he is kicked out of the house after Henry Sherman exposes his ruse, Royal realizes that the last several days spent with his family were the best of his life. He becomes more kind and fatherly to his neglected children. For example, he tells Chas that he should be lighter on his own kids so that they do not reject their father like the family currently rejects Royal. He takes Margot out for ice cream so that they can talk one-on-one, for perhaps the first time. He tries to prove himself worthy of his children by getting an honest job as an elevator operator. He drops everything to rush to his son’s side when he hears that Richie has attempted suicide. Royal also makes amends with Etheline, giving her a divorce and acknowledging that Henry is everything that he is not. At Etheline and Henry’s wedding, Royal also saves his grandsons, Ari and Uzi, from Eli’s car and buys them a new dog to replace poor Buckley. This becomes the catalyst for Chas to begin to open up to his father about his life.
By the end of the film, Royal has restored his relationship with his family. The ending montage has Royal having more reckless fun with Ari, Uzi, plus a happier Chas. Margot comes out of her writer’s block and produces a new play, with Royal loudly cheering on her work from his theatre seat with the rest of the family. Everyone attends his funeral, from extended family to co-workers. Ari and Uzi give their grandfather a BB gun salute. Etheline, to whom Royal had earlier given his epitaph to proofread, has procured a gravestone that reads, “Royal O’Reilly Tenenbaum, 1932-2001, Died tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship,” thus fulfilling his wish to have an impressive tombstone. The funeral does not feel sad, but joyful and satisfying. Royal managed to redeem himself, and his family, healed and unified, can move on and proudly call themselves The Royal Tenenbaums.
The Royal Tenenbaums. Dir. Wes Anderson. Perf. Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, and Bill Murray. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD.