In ‘Film as Film’, celebrated critic V. F. Perkins argues that the success of a movie depends on how well its separate elements come together. This is where the auteur theory, developed by François Truffaut and the Cahiers du cinema crowd, gains momentum. Filmmaking is usually a fragmentary and repetitive task. Having worked on a film set, I came away surprised that a coherent whole can emerge at the end of the process at all. Truth is, the worst films are produced by committee and the best materialise from a single-minded vision. Collaboration is key, but everyone must pull in the same, specific direction, dictated by a disciplined mind. In the words of Ricky Gervais, ‘When it comes to your art, you have to be a fascist’.
I can think of no film where the synthesis of ideas, feelings, visuals and music is more evident than Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Its elements blend into one another so seamlessly, they were clearly conceived in unison rather than assembled from spare parts. It’s presented as a children’s book with an acrid wit, delightful to look at and amusing to behold, but bittersweet and heartbreaking at its core.
The story follows the Tenenbaum family and their closest allies. Father Royal is a lawyer; harsh, unfaithful, and generally a cheat. Mother Etheline is an archaeologist, devoted to her children and their education. Eldest son Chas is a financial genius, younger son Richie is a tennis pro, and adopted daughter Margot is a distinguished playwright. Then there are family friends Eli Cash, a writer who uses terms like ‘friscalating dusklight’ (a wink to Cormac McCarthy), and Etheline’s accountant Henry Sherman. Margot’s husband Raleigh St. Clair completes the cast. The characters are introduced at a vertiginous pace in a sequence of portraits that assume the mirror’s point-of-view.
The Tenenbaum children are wunderkinds incapable of accepting adulthood, stuck in a timeframe when their blooming talents promised the world but delivered only stagnation. They dress, walk, talk and feel the same way in their thirties as they did aged ten. They have suffered failure and bereavement: Chas lost his wife, Richie his career, Margot her sense of self. What saves them is a magical kind of eccentricity–a gene they share, perhaps unknowingly. For better or worse, they come to appreciate the universal family circumstance: you only get one.
The film’s dialogue has its own frequency — mostly droll, often piercing — and every performance is attuned to it. The cinematography, costumes and set design are enchanting. Anderson is sensitive to the emotional essence of his characters and builds his filmic world around them with an astonishing depth of detail. His version of New York is gentler, sweeter and more forgiving than we’re used to. This is a city that, in ’98 alone, suffered considerable damage from asteroids (Armageddon, Deep Impact) and a giant sea monster (Godzilla). Here it feels homemade and lovingly hand-drawn. Even its imperfections are endearing.
The soundtrack, with a score by Mark Mothersbaugh, is as beautiful and tender as the film itself. The advantage of Anderson’s approach is that his screenplay and song choices develop symbiotically, which means he often gets to play music on set, to set the tone. ‘Wigwam’ by Bob Dylan inspires Henry to kiss Etheline. ‘Look at Me’ by John Lennon accompanies a scene where Chas puts his children to bed. ‘Police and Thieves’ by The Clash is on Eli’s car radio when he drives to pick up mescaline. ‘Judy Is a Punk’ by The Ramones complements a montage of Margot’s romantic (mis)adventures. ‘Fly’ by Nick Drake escorts Royal to the hospital. ‘Stephanie Says’ by The Velvet Underground sweetens the return flight of Mordecai, Richie’s bird. Oh, and an orchestral version of ‘Hey Jude’ frames the prologue.
Two scenes in particular get my heart racing every time. When Margot arrives to meet Richie and we get the first real close-up of his face, buried behind a beard, long hair, sunglasses and a headband. Margot walks towards him in slow motion, as Nico begins to sing, ‘I’ve been out walking / I don’t do too much talking these days’. The singer and film character share a similar androgynous sex appeal, and why am I not surprised.
Richie is in love with Margot. After he discovers she’s been sleeping around with Eli, among so many others, he shaves his beard and hair and slits his wrists to the sounds of ‘Needle in the Hay’ by Elliott Smith. Incidentally, the singer-songwriter in question died in 2003 from a stab-wound to the heart following an argument with his girlfriend. It remains unclear whether it was self-inflicted or a homicide. As is often the case with heartbreak, who inflicts which wound is hard to determine.
I have known people to complain that The Royal Tenenbaums is too stylised, too quirky, too whimsical, too much of a pastiche. To me, that’s like saying something is too much of a good thing. It’s certainly not for everyone, but neither is anything, especially if it’s any good. As far as I’m concerned, the line that some people manage to draw between style and substance is illusory. For Wes Anderson, the notion of synthesis emerges mostly through film technique, but it’s got an ideological imperative, too, especially within the context of a family.