Observations about The Royal Tenenbaums after way too many viewings (revised 12/31/2003):
Because Wes Anderson meticulously plans every aspect of his movies, the following observations are about things in The Royal Tenenbaums that almost undoubtedly are intentional in the movie:
1. There are a lot of Odyssey-themes. Royal (“King”) returns to his home after a long absence (that even included adultery) and tries to dispatch his wife’s suitor. Royal’s sons also have the names of British nobility – Chas (Charles) and Richie (Richard). The Chinese masseuse in Royal’s hotel is named “Sing Sang” which could make her a kind of siren, keeping him there until he can no longer pay and is evicted. Another similarity is that when Odysseus returns, he meets up first with a loyal servant (Eumaios) who is his swine-herd. Royal’s loyal servant Pagoda is there and still remains loyal. Further, Royal restores his own rights to the household by the symbol of re-hanging his Havalina Boar’s head by the stairs (Richie hangs it). Remember that the suitors in the Odyssey were eating up all the swine. One possibly unintentional reference is that the house is at “Archer Avenue”. In the Odyssey, Odysseus’s contest with the suitors culminates in an archery trial; who can bend the bow, who can shoot an arrow through the rings on the axe handles, etc.
2. Other Greek themes include Helen of Troy. In the background of the whole movie is Royal’s filial piety toward his mother, Helen. Helen is his motivation – visiting her grave is the beginning of his attempts at reconciliation with the children. Margot’s middle name is Helen, and Richie is in love with her. The movie begins with Richie on a ship and when he hears of Royal’s illness, Richie transfers to the Halifax and then to the Helena before meeting up with Margot. Halifax means ‘holy hair’ (perhaps Margot’s), and Helena is an obvious reference. At his destination, the fair-haired Margot comes toward him to a beautiful Nico song. Helen’s portrait, hanging behind Royal when he initiates reconciliation in that scene with Margot, Richie, and Chas, features Helen wearing a Nurse’s uniform and there is a Red Cross on her shirt. The same red cross hangs behind Richie in the hospital bed after his suicide attempt. The sign above Richie’s port of arrival is “Royal Arctic Line” – Royal again – kingly. Etheline, Royal’s wife, has the sound of “helen” in the middle as well.
3. Everyone wears a uniform in the entire movie. Richie has his Bjorn Bjork tennis look with the khaki jacket, Margot wears a Lacoste dress with a fur coat and penny loafers, Chas and his sons wear matching jogging suits (for safety and mutual visibility, according to Wes Anderson), Henry Sherman wears the smart suit with a matching hankerchief, Royal dresses as a lawyer. The hotel staff wear uniforms, the hospital staff wear uniforms, Etheline wears a skirt/suit, Royal’s mother Helen is wearing a nurse’s uniform in the one shot of her that we get. Their friend, Eli Cash, wears the uniform of a cowboy poet. At the wedding when everyone is in tuxedos, Henry Sherman’s son is dressed in his military uniform. In the flashbacks of Etheline’s various suitors, every one of them wears a uniform. The “redemption” themes in the movie are hinted at by changes of uniform. Richie changes his uniform – he shaves his head and adds an under-vest to his khaki suit. There is a ritual as Richie removes his sunglasses, shaves his beard and hair, and then attempts suicide. He is okay, however, and emerges looking different. Mordecai, Richie’s hawk, also changes uniform. When he returns to the roof-top where Richie and Royal are talking, it is clear that he has more white feathers due to stress. Royal changes uniform from that of a lawyer to that of an elevator operator. By becoming a servant of all, Royal actually becomes the king again. When Richie goes to Royal for advice, they ascend to the roof of the hotel where Mordecai returns. The ascension themes, and the themes of the return of Mordecai evoke the story of Jesus and the story of Noah. The bird returns. Eli’s change of uniform to the face paint he wore in the childhood scene at Royal’s vacation house is a regression. His last desparate attempt to be a Tenenbaum by force. The loss of Chas’s dog completes the tragedy of the airplane accident; his wife and dog are now dead, and Royal gives him a new dog (Sparkplug) to generate the beginnings of a new respect for his father and a new life with his sons. Chas sees that death can come anywhere, really, no matter what precautions are taken, and other people can help – Royal – not just impersonal security systems. I think there must be some symbolism with Margot’s being clothed in animal skins – perhaps some reference to Eve.
4. There are some christological themes with regard to Royal. His “death” brings the family together, and even though a ruse, his “resurrection” allows him to then become the servant of the family, and ends up “saving them” as the tombstone says (and the maritime metaphors are there too as Royal is said to save them from a sinking battleship) . Further, Royal is pierced in his side by Pagoda. This is not the only time Royal is pierced; Pagoda was sent to kill him in calcutta, but ended up taking him to the hospital afterward. Richie is constantly drinking bloody mary’s – I think this might have some kind of eucharistic imagery because it seems to preserve him, and he is constantly adding salt to the drink.
5. The same font is used throughout the movie. Anytime text appears on buildings, it is in that font; this is evidence that the text itself is far from incidental and should be examined as I have done somewhat above.
There are some things that I haven’t quite figured out yet – Margot’s missing finger, Raleigh’s name, etc. It is obvious, though, that Raleigh’s character is based on Oliver Sacks, the famous sociologist/psychologist.