The Royal Tenenbaums

Updated: May 19, 2021

In my entire life I have only gone to the cinema alone on a handful of occasions. This was rarely by choice even though each time was enjoyable. The first film, I watched alone in a cinema was Wes Anderson’s ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’ and I went to see it alone on a day in 2001 for three specific reasons:

1. I had several hours to kill between a University lecture and when my bus would arrive to take me home.

2. I had seen Wes Anderson’s previous film, ‘Rushmore’ and liked how singularly strange it was, which when combined with the incredible cast that had been assembled for ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ made it a necessity for me to see.

3. Having seen the off-kilter sense that lay at the heart of Rushmore there were only a few people who I thought would enjoy the follow-up and none of them were available at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon.

As it turned out, the film was everything I hoped it would be. It made sense to me within my poorly defined notion of who I was at that time. I was twenty-one and felt out of place with the world. I have wondered if it was late developing teenage angst although, having felt like I had more than enough angst as a teenager anyway that seems unlikely. A more plausible explanation lies in the low-level anxiety I had spent most of my life refusing to acknowledge and hid away from through a cocktail of overpowering good humour, politeness, lies and alcohol. Every time it bubbled up, I would find a way to hide from it or force it down away from my heart where I knew it would consume me. That is until, years later, when I couldn’t do that anymore. I stopped hiding and was left with the empty feeling in my chest and panic that it was spreading; the hollow sense of irrational fear spiralling out of control and taking me with it.

That made going back to watch the film again a rather surreal experience. Twenty years have passed, and it feels like we’ve both changed and at the same time not at all. It is still a terrific film. It still has brilliant performances (Gene Hackman and Angelica Huston are never less than great but to my mind Ben Stiller has never been better), it is still quintessentially Wes Anderson in its look and feel, it is still funny, it is still odd.

When watching the film in the years since, it was always those things that I noticed (along with the brilliant soundtrack of great, and not wildly overused songs). This time was different though. What was most clear to me was how incredibly sad and moving it all is. The damage people, and specifically families, do to each other and the scars that remain as reminders or worse as they move into adulthood is there in almost every frame of the film. I think I have always been aware of that but this time it felt like a punch to the gut as I watched.

This damage can be done almost without knowing – in the way Royal Tenenbaum introduces Margo as his ‘adopted daughter’ or how he shoots his son Chas with a BB gun leaving a pellet permanently lodged between the knuckles of the boy’s fingers. Both Margo and Chas carry these scars both figuratively and literally with them into adulthood; symbols of their father’s unwillingness or inability to offer them the protective care that a parent is typically expected to offer their children.

The transformative element is that he attempts to offer this to them (in his own inimitable style) once they have grown up. Manipulation, coercion and dishonesty are part of how he goes about this within a scheme to get himself somewhere to live and get his ex-wife back. That this falls apart swiftly is important only insofar as it reveals a greater truth. He realises, almost too late that he loves his family despite the damage he has done to them and that they have sometimes done to him in return.

We all make mistakes and most of our lives will see us leaving a trail of destruction behind us, whether we want that or not. To find a way to redeem ourselves is to break free of the trauma in our own hearts and, with luck, bring some peace to those we have caused harm to. It will not make their scars disappear, but it can lessen the sting and allow them to move forward, away from the time of their trauma. The film offers the characters the chance to do this together, and to heal as a family, not by avoiding the pain of the past but by acknowledging it and then letting it go.

Like many others, I wish I had never had the need for such a lesson to hit home for me; to blindside me with something I thought I already knew. I guess that is how we grow, and it reminds me of the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ I think I can appreciate now that this may also be true of watching films.

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