Observations about The Royal Tenenbaums after way too many viewings (revised 12/31/2003):

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.

33 thoughts on “Observations about The Royal Tenenbaums after way too many viewings (revised 12/31/2003):”

  1. Incest? Richie and Margot aren’t related by blood and their romance is not graphically portrayed – they agree to be “secretly in love with each other and leave it at that”. If you draw the conclusion that they are sleeping together, that’s fine, but I don’t necessarily draw that conclusion.

  2. i’m really intrigued by all that you’ve said about this…i never would have come to these conclusions, and i find them fascinating. what do you make of the gypsy cabs being all beaten up? is it simply a for humors sake? also, if anderson intentionally based the film on the Odyssey, do you see it as genius, or unoriginal?

  3. The term “gypsy cab” refers to an unlicensed cab and usually they are beaten up. Anderson made a joke by linking all the cabs into “Gypsy Cab. Co.” which makes it sound like a company. I don’t find much symbolism in the mode of transportation. Everyone has different kinds of vehicles (Eli Cash, Chas, Buses for Richie, etc.)

    Oh, basing it on the Odyssey or not basing it on the Odyssey doesn’t really change whether it is original or not. Almost nothing is totally original in this world, eh? The movie uses a lot of Greek tales that aren’t in the Odyssey too, of course.

    The movie is an achievement and is the fruit of tons of hard, meticulous work and planning. The script is impeccable as well as the set design, sound editing, and camera work. I don’t know if it is a work of genius – as Margot says, we can’t use that word lightly.

  4. The important thing about the font, though, is that it proves that building names, labels, etc. throughout the movie are intentional and not just part of the scenery on location shots.

  5. Have you all ever thought that maybe you need to get a life, or maybe some hobbies? (or just get laid every now and then).

  6. Like your comments – for the record, for my money (I’m not joking) Tenenbaums is the best movie ever made. If you love Wes and get Wes, it’s pure genius. Thanks.

  7. I’ve enjoyed your insights. It is nice to know that people are still talking and thinking about The Royal Tenenbaums, a film that puts redemption up against the absurdity human behavior.

  8. Thanks, Barlow. I enjoyed your observations. If you want to watch another film that draws loosely from The Odyssey for inspiration, check out “Oh, Brother Where Art Though”. (I’m sure you have already.) We watched “The Royal Tennenbaums” yesterday again. I’ve probably seen the movie 7 or 8 times now. I doubt any of these things you’re noticing are unintentional.

  9. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who’s seen Wes’ movies way too many times. 7 or 8 please, upwards of 20-30 for each, and yes I get laid alot! I’ve always thought they most resembled the writings of J.D. Salinger. Alot of comparisons were made with The Tenenbaums and the Glass Family. On that note Rushmore could be compared to Catcher in the Rye and then various random things in Bottle Rocket. Keep an eye out for a movie called Garden State, written, directed and starring Zach Braff, it’s the closet thing to a wes movie i’ve seen.

  10. you’re third on a google search for “royal tenebaums font” … just fyi…

    very nice analysis… i really enjoyed reading the comparison between RT and the odyssey…

  11. Also, notice any scene with the family as a whole or majority. Margot is always a little back from, and never fully part of, the group. this is due to her being adopted and is symbolic of her never really being a true blood Tenebaum. Its a great movie, and the characters personal problems run so deep that I feel much better about my Family every time I see it.

  12. Concerning Margot’s missing finger, this seems to point to (sorry) the tribal customs of mutilation (maybe from New Guinea, Africa, and/or certain Native American tribes) in which a finger was wholly, or partially, cut off in mourning for a tribal member who had recently died . Specifically, I remember seeing a documentary in which young girls of a tribe would bear this sacrifice.

    Perhaps as a memorial for Margot being “lost” to her original family (tribe), she has this mark placed upon her by the tribal elder. I’ve only seen the RT in pieces and my memory is hazy on the details, but some evidence to support this tribal idea might be her spending time at the African wing of the public archives and her subsequent island wedding (I remember grass skirts).

  13. i know this is an old post, but do you ever think about the name of the ship that Richie starts off on? “The Cote d’Ivoire.” when i typed this into an online translator, it spat out “dimension ivory.” im guessing ivory dimension. im trying to think of what this would symbolize, if anything.

  14. In regards to Margot’s finger, I think it has to do with the fact that her biological father was the one who removed it. When Chas’ sons ask her why she didn’t try to have it put back on she says, “it wasn’t worth it.” I think that’s how she feels about her real family; she met them but they didn’t seem to understand her (like most people) and it wasn’t worth it to attempt to form some kind of relationship.

  15. James – there is a country called “Cote d’Ivoire”, so I assumed the name of the ship to be taken from there.

    Erin – your suggestion about Margot’s finger seems to be pretty harmonious with bnoel’s above. I will have to think about it in terms of your suggestions the next time I watch.

  16. When Odysseus returns home, his dog recognizes him (when others didn’t) and then shortly after dies. Though the timing of the death of the dog is different in the movie, Wes makes a point of showing Royal’s ability to command Buckley to “sit.” The dog is the first, in both book and movie to recognize the King of the house.

  17. i hope this is not crazy, but i noticed that everyone in the movie has a problem forgiving royal, yet royal forgives everyone. pagota stabs him twice, and royal still takes him back. chas sues him
    twice and yet royal still forgives him. royal somehow forgives everyone around him yet no one really gives him much of a chance.

  18. Jonathan – I would be interested in hearing your insights regarding the various songs used in different scenes. As you noted, Anderson is very intentional about such details. I am really curious about the “Charlie Brown” theme that pops up a few times.

  19. The period of Royal’s absence from the household is 20 years, just like in the Odyssey. I think that Richie’s sea voyage also mirrors Telemachus, and Chas constantly insulting his father and his (turns out justified) skepticism at his father’s claim of illness strikes me as somewhat Antinoos like.

    I see the hotel room scene as mirroring the episode in the Odyssey where Hermes is sent to inform Odysseys and Calypso that Odysseys is to be sent on his way home, the hotel manager is Hermes here and Sing Sang is Calypso.

  20. Something I noticed:

    In the scene where they’re leaving the cemetery together, Richie tells Margot that he’s in love with her while she simultaneously drops her cigarettes. Both have revealed a massive secret about themselves to one another at the same time. Whether or not this was done intentionally by Anderson, I’m not sure. Just thought it was interesting.

  21. hi, the font used is Futura. It’s great, and I see it being the glue of the film – it holds all scenes together. As the characters (as I see it) are all cripples at communicating, expression is conveyed through the actors body movements, expressions, and props. I see the font being a grounding aspect of a story some might get lost in – keeping them hooked. This guy is a genius.

  22. I enjoyed your post on the Royal Tenenbaums — I just came across it. In regards to your point #4 about references to Christianity, I’d also like to point out that the Red Cross logo appears at least 3 times in the movie: first when Chas does the fire drill in his home, then in the portrait of Helen, and also at the hospital after the suicide attempt. I wonder if the cross’s appearances say anything about the 3 characters (Chas, Royal and Richie), or if that is stretching the symbolism too far. Beyond the Christianity references, all the blood in the movie — oh, how we hurt those we love the most…..

  23. According to Lacan’s theory, the wooden finger represents both a lost finger and the pain of its loss. She also barred herself as a subject and entered signification’s (writing) realm to make good her loss.

  24. I see Margot’s missing finger as the evidence of her lack of commitment with people/life, once it is the ring finger, lost when she met her real family – maybe realizing that “people aren’t to be trusted”. She would never be able to wear a wedding/commitment ring after that.
    I’m sorry if I made any mistakes, English is not my first language, but I hope I was able to be clear…

  25. I think that Margot´s attire is inspired by Salinger´s Franny and Zooey.
    Franny wears a sheared-raccoon coat. When Richie is waiting Margot and he sees her is reminiscent of Franny getting off the train and Lane waiting for her.

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