Mark Overanalyses Film

The Royal Tenenbaums

June 20, 2023 Mark Hennigan Season 3 Episode 9
The Royal Tenenbaums
Mark Overanalyses Film
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Mark Overanalyses Film
The Royal Tenenbaums
Jun 20, 2023 Season 3 Episode 9
Mark Hennigan

Mark feels like grabbing a couple of burgers and hitting the cemetery as he tries to figure out what makes The Royal Tenenbaums so cathartic, how it uses its novelistic framing device, and why nobody truly Wes Andersons like Wes Anderson.

Show Notes Transcript

Mark feels like grabbing a couple of burgers and hitting the cemetery as he tries to figure out what makes The Royal Tenenbaums so cathartic, how it uses its novelistic framing device, and why nobody truly Wes Andersons like Wes Anderson.

Hi everybody, and welcome to Mark Overanalyses Film! Today, in honour of the very exciting fact that Wes Anderson is releasing a new film, I’ll be looking at 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. 

Before I begin, allow me to remind you that I am available for story coaching and reading at

The Royal Tenenbaums was directed by Wes Anderson, and he also co-wrote the script with Owen Wilson. Now, full disclosure: Wes Anderson might just be my favourite writer/director and The Royal Tenenbaums might just be my favourite ever film, so there will be some gushing to come. And I’m a little nervous about doing it because it’s quite a tricky film to analyse. After all, it’s difficult to even say who the protagonist is? Is it Royal? Richie? Chas? Is it a multi-protagonist story? It’s hard to say. And further, what is it actually about? And I don’t mean in a vague “here are 5 themes kind of way”. I mean: what is the central message that the story tells us or the central argument that the story makes? Wes Anderson says he doesn’t think in theme in this way, and I think you can probably see that. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Anderson has also stated that obvious themes in his work have also been pointed out to him. But, The Royal Tenenbaums remains one of the hardest films I’ve studied to really, properly pin down in this regard.

Fortunately though, there is one way this film has made things easy for overanalysis. This is one of those films, like When Harry Met Sally or The Sting, that tells you when a new sequence begins, which definitely makes things a lot easier. It does this by showing each new sequence as a new chapter in a book, a device I’ll be talking about later. In the meantime though, I’ll be trying to figure out just who the protagonist of this story really is and just what The Royal Tenenbaums is really, fundamentally about. 

So, with all that in mind, I’d like to do something slightly different. First I’ll look at the fundamental features of who I believe the protagonist to be. Then, as the various characters are so important, I’d like to talk about them individually for a moment. Then, I’ll go through the main story beats by looking at the sequences of the film. Finally, I’ll talk about the main things I learned along the way. 

So, let’s begin with the 5 Questions about the protagonist.

The 5 Questions

Question 1: Whose story is it?

Or, who is the protagonist? Now, there’s a couple of things that make a protagonist the protagonist. For one thing, they are the one who drives the story forward, or at least the one who makes the decisions that ultimately shape the story in its key moments. But also the protagonist is supposed to be the character whose change defines the story. Basically, whatever the protagonist learns is what we as an audience are supposed to learn. So, on the first count, it’s hard to argue that Royal Tenenbaum is not the character who drives this story forward. He is the one who makes the decisions — mostly — at the key moments of the film. However, is Royal really the character whose change defines The Royal Tenenbaums? He definitely learns to be a nicer person, but that doesn’t feel quite like it’s at the centre of The Royal Tenenbaums. So, in my view, Royal Tenenbaum probably has what we can call a “Guardian Angel Protagonist”. In other words, the protagonist themselves doesn’t need to change, or at least their change doesn’t define the story. Rather, they exhibit or embody the change that the other characters in the story need to make. The classic example of this is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris is the protagonist, but Cameron is the one who needs to change, and whose change defines the film. Paddington is another classic example.  

Question 2: What is their life dream? 

Life dream here refers to what it is that the protagonist wants or is aiming to do when the film begins and the story has yet to properly start. And I think this is one of those examples where our protagonist is living their life dream. Royal would be perfectly happy continuing to live in this fancy hotel, getting massages from Singsang, gambling on dog fights, and every so often checking to make sure his estranged wife isn’t planning on moving on. What’s not to like?!

Question 3: What is their Want?

Want here is what the character is trying to achieve in Act II of the film, from the moment they really begin their journey until the moment they are at their most defeated. The whole point of this is really to give the character something to do and to give shape to the story. As such, the Want is a SMART goal, in that it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and usually, but not always, Time bound. And again, The Royal Tenenbaums is a slippery fish to pin down here. In terms of something really tangible, we could say that Royal is trying to stop Etheline from remarrying, but really The Royal Tenenbaums runs a little more loosely than most here, and we could probably get away with saying that Royal really wants to get back in with his family.

Question 4: What is their Need? 

Normally, Need is the human quality or piece of wisdom that the protagonist lacks at the beginning of the story. Now, Royal does change in some real way here, but again, I think more than anything, he embodies the change needed in his children. There is a case to be made that their Need is this human quality that Royal has: a sort of vim and vigour and openness to life. But really when it comes down to it, it’s hard to argue that The Royal Tenenbaums is about anything more than human connection, and especially the connection we feel through family. Even when your father isn’t an asshole, but he is kind of a son of a bitch.

Question 5: Do they get what they Want and/or what they Need?

Royal fails in his attempt to get his family back in the way that he originally set out to, but he does re-enter their lives in a meaningful way before death. And in doing so, he finally becomes the father his children have needed.

Ok, now that I’ve attempted to answer the 5 key questions about the protagonist, I’d like to talk a little about how the main characters work and how they relate to the story before I get to the sequences of the film.

The Characters

So, as Royal acts as a guardian angel protagonist, and embodies the Need that the other characters require, his closeness to the family represents the ebb and flow of their embracing that Need. To put it simply, when things are going well in the story, Royal is getting closer to his children. When things are going badly, he is further removed. Furthermore, not all the children are equal in this regard. Really, if you wanted to define who the main antagonist for Royal is, or who is the hardest person to change, it has to be Chas. While Richie is pretty much willing from the start, and Margot is largely passive in this regard, Chas is furious, abrasive, and dismissive with his father, so he’s kind of like a final boss in a way. 

So, Royal and Chas act as the real ‘A’ story of this film. That’s why, as we’ll see, the first scene of Act II, the acceptance of the call, the midpoint, and the climax all belong to these two characters. Interestingly though, and quite unusually, the low point of this film — the end of Act II — actually belongs arguably to its B plot, which is the story of Richie and Margot. Having said that though, it’s also important to point out that: 1) thematically the A and B stories are of a piece. 2) The shape of the overall story and thematic argument is consistent across both. And 3) Even though these scenes are mostly about Margot and Richie, at the overall story’s lowest ebb, Royal is not allowed to see his son who has just attempted suicide.

So, we can see that when things are moving in a good direction, Royal is getting closer to Chas: the hardest child to win over. When things are bad, Royal is at his greatest distance from Richie: the child who has tolerated him the most.

But before I move on, I do want to take a few minutes to look at the kids on their own terms for a moment.

 Chas is the eldest and is incredibly uptight since a plane crash killed his wife and almost killed his whole family. His need then is to let go and let some of the trauma out. He is the antithesis of Royal, which is why he needs him. He can’t control everything, so he needs to accept that and allow himself to be vulnerable. Now, all the kids, interestingly, are symbolised by an animal in some way. Chas bred dalmatian mice. They are always busy, productive, and they have reproduced themselves. Ironically, for animals that would be so associated with being in a cage, Chas lets them roam around the house, while he coops himself and his kids up in the same space. Said kids, Ari and Uzi, are closely associated with their dog Buckley. Of course, the story proves that as careful as Chas is, he can’t protect his dog from the chaos of life. Also, at the end of our story, after complaining about Chas’s dalmatian mice earlier, Royal buys Chas… a dalmatian, signifying that he is finally really making a connection with his son… through his grandchildren. 

Margot is the adopted daughter and genius playwright. Margot was always reminded she was adopted, which likely contributed to her turning inward and secretive. Feeling alone, she created her own little world. Her need then is to let go of her intense secrecy and share some real intimacy. Margot doesn’t have a pet, but she is consistently associated with zebras. Her bedroom’s wallpaper is covered in zebras, she plays a zebra in her first play, and she sleeps under a zebra when her and Richie hide out in the museum. Further, she is almost always wearing stripes. 

Ok, so why? Well, by my reckoning, zebras are exotic, wild, and mysterious — just like Margot. But also, there is the famous question: are zebras white with black stripes or black with white stripes? Is Margot a Tenenbaum or not? Is she Richie’s sister or lover? The zebra most likely represents Margot’s awkward feeling of being neither fully one thing nor the other. That is some goddamn symbolism, and I love it.

Finally, of course, there is who many consider to be the main character of The Royal Tenenbaums, or at least its soul in some way: Richie. I think some of this is because he is the “protagonist” of the B plot, and the iconic, devastating low point belongs to him. But also, he might personify the film, and Wes Anderson’s films more than any other single character. Richie is so good-hearted and sweet, but also so deeply melancholic and sad. He is in some ways incredibly open, almost like an open wound, and yet tightly wound and repressed. He is desperately in love with his adopted sister, but feels like he can’t express it. And he needs to, because not being able to access or express this deep love and vulnerability is destroying his life. 

Richie is, of course, associated with Mordecai: an animal who could be free but who chooses to return to his home / cage, depending on your point of view. And this association is never clearer than when there are a number of fast cuts of Mordecai during Richie’s suicide attempt, but more on that later.

Now, I should also point out that Royal is associated with his stuffed wild Javelina. At the beginning of the story, the javelina has been removed. At the start of Act II, Royal notices it’s missing. At the midpoint of the story, it is rediscovered. And at the beginning of the final act, it is returned to its original place at the heart of the family home.

For her part, it might be worth noting that Etheline is not really associated with an animal other than, arguably, humans. She is an archaeologist, who maintains the past. The only time we see her at work, she is telling someone to be gentle with human remains and to note how damaged they are. And this feels entirely keeping with who Etheline is and what she does in our story.

Ok, so now that we have all of our characters clearly defined, let’s have a quick look at The Royal Tenenbaum’s sequences. 


The Sequences

There are normally, but not always, 8 sequences, or stages, in a film. A sequence is a combination of scenes that are tied together by having a single overriding dramatic question or tension, and they tend to be between 10 and 15 minutes in length. A good way to think about it is that every 10-15 minutes, the audience should be on some level asking themselves a different dramatic question. 

Act I:

Act I has our first two sequences, and the first one is always pretty much “life as it is”. But first, we actually see a book entitled The Royal Tenenbaums being checked out of a library. Now, I’ll talk more about this device later on, but for now, let me point something incredibly nerdy out. It’s always fascinating when stories describe themselves. And here, as the library book is stamped, there is a description of the fictional novel on the jacket cover. It reads as follows: “WR Wales uses all of his considerable storytelling skills to tell the tale of The Royal Tenenbaums. Meet Royal, a rascal if ever there was one, who decides late in life to make amends to the family he abandoned. Etheline, his wife, who is now being courted by another man. The last thing she needs is for her long forgotten husband to reappear. The children were once considered geniuses but are now a dysfunctional trio. Join Royal and his sidekick Pagoda in a comical quest to reunite the family and rekindle family love.” Probably not enough in there about the kids really, but otherwise: not bad!

We then have a prologue, where we get a backstory of who the Tenenbaums are and how they ended up this way. In the words of Alec Baldwin’s narrator: “virtually all memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.” At that, we see where these two decades have left them all. Royal is finally out of money and getting kicked out of his hotel. Richie is on board a ship and so lonely that he is actually writing a letter admitting he’s in love with his adopted sister Margot to his friend Eli. Margot has completely withdrawn from the world into her bathroom. And Chas is running intense fire drills with his poor young children, Ari and Uzi. In a foreshadowing of later events, we are told poor Buckley was not saved in the drill. But then, we have The Royal Tenenbaums’ Inciting Incident, or: the event without which our story as it is would not happen. Etheline is taken by surprise when her lovably stalwart accountant Mr Henry Sherman proposes to her, and she considers it. Now, you could argue that the inciting incident is Royal running out of money at the hotel, but this is really the moment that triggers Royal into trying to win his family back. And once Pagoda informs him, that’s exactly what Royal resolves to do. We now have our first real tension, “Will Royal find a way back in with his family?”, and so, at minute 16, we begin sequence II, or what The Royal Tenenbaums calls Chapter 2.

As is so often the case, we’ve had an inciting incident at the end of our first sequence, and the second sequence is then the characters reacting to it and preparing to start their adventure. In this case, that means: everyone is trying to get home. Chas moves in immediately, clearly seeking the safe feeling of childhood. This triggers Margot to do the same. Then, Royal makes his play. He tells Etheline he’s dying, then he takes it back when she gets upset, then he takes back the take back when he realises how much trouble he’s in. Etheline tells the kids, and so Richie also returns. This return is then responsible for what is arguably Wes Anderson’s most iconic moment, and one of the most iconic slow motion moments in cinematic history: Margot getting off the bus to Nico’s These Days. And just to say: there is a reason why Wes Anderson is Wes Anderson, why Tarantino is Tarantino, why Scorsese is Scorsese. This is a level of audio-visual craft and taste to create a moment and to tell a story with it that is beyond all competitors or copycats. This moment is so, so evocative. This kind of moment is why Roger Ebert called cinema an empathy machine. It’s pure cinema, and I love it. Anyways, interestingly at this point, Richie sets Mordecai free. But more importantly, everyone is now home and Royal has indeed found a thin end of a wedge to get back in with his family. And so, we wonder the big question of “Can Royal really win his family back?”, and at minute 26 we end Act I and we enter Act II.

Act II:

Act II begins with sequence III, the first attempts to solve the problem. And, sequence III also begins with a “What’s the plan?” scene, which tells us what our long act II is going to look like. So, of course, we see Royal arrive at the house and attempt to inveigle his way back in with the family. Sequence III is also defined by the refusal to the call, where the protagonist is first called to their need and they refuse. So, here, Chas, acting as our character most in Need, refuses to let go of his anger, dismisses Royal outright, and refuses to let him meet Ari and Uzi. [] But this eventually gives way to the acceptance of the call, or the character’s first unconscious move towards their need. So, Margot first learns from Eli that Richie has said he’s in love with her. And, most importantly, Royal sneakily circumvents Chas, and meets his grandchildren as they do one of their 16 weekly workouts. [] As this sequence ends, Chas makes his first big move, though unconsciously, as he is manipulated into allowing his children to meet Royal.

Now, often in this podcast, you’ll hear me mix up or intentionally coalesce the terms sequences and stages, because the classic film structure would have one sequence per “story stage”, and there’s just not much point in introducing yet more jargon here. So, sometimes I’ll say something like “we have 2 mini-sequences here”, which really means that we have two sequences in the same stage or part of the story. And The Royal Tenenbaums shows this in its text. We’ve had our first unconscious move, but we’re not yet ready for sequence or stage IV. So, you’ll notice at minute 35, we have what looks like a new Chapter heading, but it’s not Chapter 4. It just says “Maddox Hill Cemetery, Lot 190”. And having moved the A plot forward, The Royal Tenenbaums now gives its B plot some time, as we wonder something like “Will Margot do something with the knowledge of the letter?”. While Chas and the boys accompany Royal to the cemetery, Margot begins to open up ever so slightly. She tells Ari and Uzi why she has a wooden finger, which is again a sign that she is both the same and different. Then, Richie tells her that he’d like to help her and Raleigh any way that he can, and she reveals that Eli told her about his letter. Now, these are big moves for these characters, but they’re still a long way from where they need to be. Richie doesn’t address the letter, but rather points out that Margot dropped her cigarettes, and she tries to deny that they are hers. He can’t admit his love, and she can’t let go of her secrecy. But soon Royal is being kicked out of his hotel, and we wonder “Will Royal manage to actually move in with his family?”, and so — at minute 42 — we enter Sequence IV properly now, as we see the greater attempts to solve the problem. 

Now, this is the sequence where we approach our midpoint, where the protagonist makes their first conscious move towards their Need. And accordingly, every character here is moving in the direction of their need. And you might notice that this sequence begins with what feels like a vital line for the whole film, as Richie states “I think he’s very lonely. Lonelier than he lets on, maybe lonelier than he even realises.” Once again circumventing Chas, Royal has now moved back into the family home. Chas tries to kick him out, but Royal feigns a seizure, and despite all his anger, Chas cannot help but be concerned for his father. This soon leads to one of their tenderer moments, as Chas insists on turning the lights out at 11:30, and Royal wishes his boy a fatherly good night. Chas then confronts Richie about why he’s let Royal back in, and Richie only offers him love in return, which Chas just cannot accept at this point. There’s the sense that he feels like the slightest crack in his veneer might cause the whole thing to come tumbling down, but there is more and more pressure being applied. But there’s also more pressure coming on the other siblings. Royal is interfering with Margot’s intense secrecy by spotting Eli sneaking out of her room, and then confronting her about it after Raleigh visits. And Richie is being forced to do something about his feelings when Raleigh asks him to help find out who Margot might be cheating with. Which is desperately sad, but also really funny, as Richie is angrier and more emotional about the betrayal than Raleigh is. It’s logical then that with everyone approaching their need, we are right around our midpoint here, or the protagonist’s first conscious move towards their Need. So, at minute 51 into a 103 minute runtime, Royal tells Etheline that you can’t teach kids to be afraid of life, you’ve got to breed a little recklessness into them. And cue, Me and Julio down by the schoolyard and a joyous montage of innocent troublemaking as Royal shows Ari and Uzi, and by extension their family, what they have really been missing. But what I think is probably the real definitive midpoint comes just after. At minute 53, Chas discovers what Royal has been doing and drags him into a closet to dress him down. And Royal retaliates by telling Chas that he thinks his son is having a nervous breakdown and that he hasn’t recovered from Rachel’s death. [] Like so many midpoints, this foreshadows our final climactic action, where Chas will essentially admit this. It’s classic storytelling structure. But for now, we’ve had our midpoint, and Royal really does seem to have integrated into the family, and so we enter sequence V: the honeymoon sequence. 

Now, normally this is where I would say that the honeymoon sequence is so called because the protagonist has acted in accordance with their Need and as a result, things go well for a while. But the wheels start to come off here pretty quickly in truth. I’d say it’s most likely because the low point really belongs to the B story of Richie and Margot, so we have to get to the low point of the A story quite quickly. Anyways, we do have a quintessential honeymoon sequence kind of scene where Royal and Etheline go for a walk and things really do seem to be getting nice between them again. So, Henry decides to take action, does some research, and outs Royal for the liar and the cad that he is. Royal is once again out on his ear, with Chas calling a taxi for him, and Royal poignantly realises that the last 6 days with his family have probably been the best days of his whole life. Royal has been found out and kicked out of the family again. Our brief Honeymoon sequence is over, and so at minute 65 we enter sequence VI: the bridge from the honeymoon to the low point. 

And this is perhaps the most remembered sequence of The Royal Tenenbaums, as for the next 15 minutes we switch tack to the story of Margot and Richie. But note that the thematic charge is still consistent. This is the sequence that features Royal the least as he is removed from the family, and the whole issue comes from people not being able to express themselves and be honest with those closest to them. We begin with Eli telling Margot that he knows that she is in love with Richie as well, but of course, now that we’re in a period of the story where characters are moving away from their need, Margot won’t admit to it. Meanwhile, we discover that Raleigh has hired a private detective to investigate his wife, which doesn’t feel like the healthiest course of action. We have a sudden, speedy, stylish montage of just what Margot has been hiding all these years. I’d say it seems like she’s lived a pretty crazy life, but I can only imagine what Gwyneth Paltrow’s dossier would look like. Margot’s dossier leaves both of the men who are in love with her absolutely devastated. Richie, utterly heartbroken, having no idea that she feels the same way about him, and no doubt feeling betrayed by his best friend, retreats to the bathroom, and what follows is an unbelievable scene. Outside of Margot stepping off the bus, it’s probably The Royal Tenenbaum’s most iconic moment. To the sound of Elliot Smith’s devastating Needle In The Hay, Richie begins to shave but feels like he can’t even follow that through. He says he’s going to kill himself tomorrow, but then decides to do so immediately. Now, there’s a series of quick jump cuts here, and I imagine Wes Anderson himself might not be able to verbalise exactly why these images are so evocative, but they certainly are. We see Mordecai hooded, then unhooded, then soaring. These shots are interspersed with some shots of his parents but mostly Margot. It feels redolent thematically that he recalls images of Mordecai either in captivity or distant. He may feel that his feelings ensure that he is either imprisoned or alone. Or, it could be that everyone in these shots looks so sad, and that’s all he sees right now. Or, it could be that he so wrongly feels at this moment that he would be releasing these people from him the way he released Mordecai. Which is why it’s so nice later when Mordecai returns to the wonderful soul that is Richie Tenenbaum. But I am entirely speculating here. Another amazing aspect of this scene is that it can be part of this film at all. It is a masterpiece of tonal balance. The scene where Raleigh runs down the hospital hall with Richie is kind of absurd, and yet somehow it works. 

But, the worst thing has happened, and Margot in particular is devastated. Her guarded secrecy is shattered, and she finally smokes in front of everyone. It is in a hospital, which feels less than ideal. But at least her guard is coming down. Royal soon hears and comes to see his son, but at this lowest point, he can’t even see his suicidal youngest son. But he then sees Richie enigmatically board a bus home. And here, Richie finds Margot in his tent and there is another incredible scene as the pair finally express their Needs. Margot tells Richie about her past, and Richie tells Margot that he loves her. This sequence, and this act then ends with Margot’s line: “I think we’re just going to have to be secretly in love with each other and leave it at that Richie.” Now, really, the lowest ebb feels like it has passed, but this line expresses the idea that defines the end of so many second acts. Royal now wants to be a real member of this family, but doesn’t know how now. We sense that Chas wants to change, but doesn’t know how. And Margot and Richie have admitted their feelings, but don’t believe they can be together. At the low point, the protagonist no longer believes the counter-argument but the argument seems impossible. And so, at minute 81, with a textbook 22 minutes left to go, we end Act II and we enter Act III.

Act III:

Act III has a false resolution and a true resolution. Our false resolution is defined by Royal trying to get back in with his family now that he really has changed. So, Richie replaces Royal’s Javelina, and then goes to see his father and tell him his situation. And as the family is beginning to reunite, Mordecai also returns to Richie. Now, there’s so much to get through in The Royal Tenenbaums that I really have not spent enough time talking about how funny it is, but I love the fact that when Royal considers Richie and Margot together he comments that it would certainly be frowned upon, but then again what isn’t these days?! Anyways, Royal then does the rounds of trying to make amends with his family. He attempts to reconcile with Margot by talking to her earnestly about her situation with Richie, but Margot remains reluctant to share. It is worth pointing out though that Royal tells his daughter at this point that “Can’t someone be a shit their whole life and want to repair the damage? I mean, I think people want to hear that.” In response, Margot asks “Do they?” Now, this is a reference to the story of The Royal Tenenbaums itself, but also it is almost certainly the topic of the play that Margot writes at the end of the film in our true resolution: a suggestion that she at least attempts to get some closure on her relationship with Royal. But again, Chas is the final test. So, Royal suggests grabbing a couple of burgers and hitting the cemetery with Ari and Uzi, and is flatly refused. Finally, at the end of our false resolution, Royal divorces Etheline, allowing her to remarry, and for his family to truly move on. The selfish Royal has finally acted truly selflessly, and so with 11 minutes left, we enter The Royal Tenenbaums’ true resolution. 

Etheline and Henry are getting married, and unfortunately, Eli all too literally crashes the wedding, killing poor Buckley in the process, and almost killing Ari and Uzi. Just before chasing him through the house and admitting that he needs help, Chas discovers that it was Royal that saved his children. Our climactic scene is then just a Wes Anderson masterclass. We slowly crane across the front of the house as we see almost every character. There are so many little jokes here, but it ends with the climactic moment where Royal brings Chas a new dog he just bought for him: a dalmatian. Royal finally wholeheartedly apologises for letting his children down and says he’s been trying to make it up to them. And Chas, in this climactic action, accepts his apology and, reconnecting with his father, immediately admits how hard he has had it. The way Ben Stiller’s voice breaks gets me every single time. It is a wonderful, tender, innocent, good-hearted moment and what Wes Anderson films are really all about. Finally, we see that the kids have all made peace with their situations. Margot shares her original hiding spot with Richie and returns to playwriting. Richie begins teaching tennis. And Chas joins Royal and his children on a slightly reckless jaunt. Chas is then the last person to ever see his father alive. In a typically bittersweet ending, the children bury Royal, but having fully reconnected with him, he has changed their lives, and given them the father they need. And they can now truly move on.


Discussions of Wes Anderson and his films often focus primarily and sometimes dismissively on his distinctive visual style and soundtracks. While I would not question the importance of his style for one moment, I think that does a real disservice to Wes Anderson as a writer and storyteller and kind of undermines why his films are so important to some people, myself very much included. His style informs his storytelling and vice-versa. Now, I won’t get into the weeds here on camera stuff (there’s plenty about that on youtube), but there are recurrent stylistic story elements that are far more overlooked in my view, and which I regard as crucial to understanding the filmmaker. So, I’d like to talk about them a little here.

And the first of those is Anderson’s use of story framing devices. In every one of Wes Anderson’s live action films, there is some kind of framing device. Rushmore begins with theatre curtains being drawn, and curtains also mark the act breaks of the film. The Royal Tenenbaums is depicted as a book being taken out of a library and read by a narrator. Every sequence is marked as a new chapter. The Life Aquatic begins with us watching a fictional documentary with the main characters. The film that follows is the attempt to make the second part of that documentary. It should be noted as well that the documentary components use animated sea creatures, highlighting the surreality of the whole thing. The Darjeeling Limited is preceded by a short film, Hotel Chevalier, the story of which is then referenced later in the film. The film itself then begins with a character’s race to make a train. That character, played by Bill Murray of course, doesn’t make it, and we follow Adrien Brody’s character instead. This highlights that we could just as easily be watching another story entirely. Moonrise Kingdom curiously begins with a breakdown and description of a soundtrack, as if it were asking you to contemplate the separate parts of a piece of art and how they come together to create the whole. Bob Balaban then speaks directly to camera as an omniscient narrator. The Grand Budapest Hotel begins with a girl reading a book entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is depicted as a book written by an author who is remembering a time in his younger days when he was told the events of the story by an aged hotel owner to whom the events had transpired in his youth. Straightforward, right? Finally, The French Dispatch is of course a collection of short stories, depicted as if we were reading them from the paper. It is remarkably consistent, isn’t it? Even his first film Bottle Rocket begins with the main character being watched through binoculars. Wes Anderson always starts his films with some kind of device that separates us from the story in some way. 

So, the question is: why? Well, most of the time, when Wes Anderson gets asked a question like that, he seems to respond that he doesn’t really know why. He’s just acting on what feels right to him. But whether Anderson is consciously aware of it or not, I am personally inclined to believe that he creates a sense of distance in his stories for the purposes of tone and mood, which is then channelled through and further emphasised by his characters.

Now, these framing devices are a kind of permission structure for both the film and the audience. It allows the story to have a pervading magical realist tone to it, wherein things can happen and characters can behave in emotionally truthful but somewhat unusual ways.

Speaking of characters, there is pretty much always a dichotomy within Anderson’s film. There are characters who are reckless forces of nature and others who are almost completely depressed and practically moribund. This is the relationship between Dignan and Anthony in Bottle Rocket, Max and Blume in Rushmore, Sam and Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom and so on. And it is certainly the case between Royal and his children in The Royal Tenenbaums. Now, there’s a kind of natural gap of understanding between these characters, but one thing they all have in common is that they are all emotionally truthful almost all of the time. But as the youtube channel Lessons from the Screenplay point out in their video on Moonrise Kingdom, this emotional truthfulness is often delivered with such a flat affect that it creates a sense of dissonance. It seems to tell us what we probably already feel: that even if we were to express ourselves and our loneliness and vulnerability in full honesty, we still couldn’t really connect with each other. There is still some kind of gap there. Just as there is between these character types, and as there is between this world that Anderson creates and the audience. 

Characters in Anderson’s films are trying to connect with each other by being almost totally honest almost all of the time, and yet there is this sense that a gap and a distance pervades. This is even the case I think with their outfits. There is some kind of sense to wearing something distinctive and unique that then becomes a highly curated uniform that doesn’t change — A sense of self-expression that becomes flat and expressionless. These outfits often become like cumbersome armour for these characters. In Rushmore, Max won’t take off his Rushmore uniform when he attends another school for example. But of course, there is no better, sadder example of this than Richie Tenenbaum. Devastated, he cuts the hair and beard hiding his face, and then removes his sunglasses. Looking into his own sad eyes in the mirror, without any barriers in place anymore, he decides to kill himself. His clothing — his affect — was the armour protecting the deeply sad, vulnerable, lonely soul lurking just beneath.  

Everyone in a Wes Anderson film is lonely. The fact that these stories feel far away from us highlights to us that feeling of loneliness. There’s a wonderful, whimsical world there and we can only connect to it so much, as can the characters within that world. Yet, ironically, it is within this loneliness — within this deep well of sadness — that these characters find a connection with each other. And it is in this expression of loneliness that a certain kind of person feels a deep well of kinship and affection for Wes Anderson and his films. Personally speaking, when I feel lonely, there is nothing I would rather do than watch a Wes Anderson film. His films don’t tell me not to feel lonely. They don’t really offer a solution to loneliness. But they do offer understanding, a sense that someone else feels this too. And because of that, no filmmaker makes me feel less alone. His films are stylish and clever and funny, but I think that’s what makes Wes Anderson Wes Anderson.  


This has been Mark Overanalyses Film. If you enjoyed this episode, please like, rate, follow, recommend, and whatever else it is that’s good for this kind of thing! A special thanks to Mary Kate O’Flanagan who taught me everything I know about film, including these methods. Thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves, and see you soon.