Film of the Week: “The Royal Tenenbaums”

With Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998), Wes Anderson was able to hone his skill as both a writer and director, and the result of that labor shines through the most in his third film The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). What ties all three films together is perhaps their lack of a traditional narrative and a focus instead on characters; what I mean by this is that while all three films may have a story that can be described on an IMBD page, that summary doesn’t necessarily entail what goes on in the film. The element that makes Royal Tenenbaums distinct from its predecessors then, is its increase in scope on character portraits.

While the three protagonists of the film, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Richie (Luke Wilson), and Chas (Ben Stiller), make up the bulk of the film’s focus, Anderson also explores a variety of other characters including the children’s parents, Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Houston), as well as those outside of the family unit, such as Eli (Luke Wilson) and Henry (Danny Glover). The Royal Tenenbaums isn’t simply an exploration of individual characters, however, but also between the relationships of characters and the effect of the creation and destruction of those relationships on their subjects. Furthermore, The Royal Tenenbaums is a film and so Anderson employs cinema’s visual aspect into the exploration of the film’s characters. One example, is Margot’s placement in the composition of the screen being reflective of her relationship towards her family.

As the opening narration tells us, Margot Tenenbaum was adopted at the age of two—a fact her father never forgot to mention when introducing her. Already then, we can begin to note Margot’s identity as an outsider to the family. Not only is she adopted, but she is perhaps further estranged from her father than her siblings are because of her father’s negative stance towards their lack of blood ties. Margot’s placement within the frame and her spatial relation to others, consequently, displays her role as an outsider.

Margot’s physical/metaphorical distance from others can be seen a number of times throughout the film, but here I will focus on one: the introduction of an adult Margot. The scenes begins with an establishing shot of Margot’s space which Anderson captures using a medium angle from a pan-view; Margot sits on top of a bathtub, smoking a cigarette, painting her nails and talking on the phone. A fan lies behind her, a box of cotton swabs lies next to the phone, concealing her cigarettes within, and a small television plays on in front of her.

Anderson’s use of framing here showcases what can be seen as Margot’s “safe” space. By this I mean an area which Margot confines herself to in order to get away from the troubles of her life, namely her husband Raleigh (Bill Murray). In essence, Margot’s escapism is captured by Anderson through his camerawork, because his use of framing creates an intimacy between the objects which hold importance to Margot and herself. This sense of intimacy is increased by the close proximity of the scene’s composition, thus implicitly telling the audience that this space is a private one.

The explicitness of Margot’s privacy comes to light when Rayleigh knocks on the door, revealing that Margot keeps it locked. Margot’s self-exile into the bathroom then can be seen as an aspect of her alienation as defined by spatial relations. She keeps herself physically removed from Rayleigh, because she no longer loves him and so confines herself to the bathroom, showcasing her sense of loneliness.

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