Sorry to start out on a depressing note, but this is my favorite image from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Maybe it’s because I have a morbid love of well-shot (if gruesome) suicide scenes. Maybe it’s how, despite the messiness of the blood, hair, shaving cream, and water, Anderson still makes the shot symmetrical and picturesque. Maybe it’s the very evocative contrast of red and blue. Maybe it’s partially the lingering association of this shot with Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay,” which plays over it. Or maybe it’s because this is one of the rare scenes where Anderson lets us fully see the pain festering in his characters’ souls, stripped (almost) of any irony, leaving behind only aching, naïve sincerity.
Comedy and tragedy have a strange, alchemical relationship to one another in The Royal Tenenbaums. Even though the film centers on the painful, long-lasting alienation of a father from his children, Anderson maintains his ironic distance through the scrupulously composed frames, the tastefully stylized color scheme, and the undercurrent of dark humor always waiting to emerge. In the midst of the suicide scene, the soundtrack goes silent for seven seconds as the neurologically impaired Dudley, a gawky teenager in oversized glasses, opens the bathroom door and discovers Richie’s bloody body. Just as Dudley is about to scream, “Needle in the Hay” resumes and we cut to:
It’s not an overtly humorous image, but traces of that dark humor are scattered about. I’m talking about the snappy visual and audio editing; the precise symmetry—right down to the bloodstains!—in what should be a frantic, disordered scene; the rhythmic coordination between the medical team’s flight down the hallway and Smith’s guitar; and most importantly, the dead serious look on Bill Murray’s bearded face. From Rushmore on, Anderson has demonstrated an acute understanding of Murray’s pop-cultural significance and mastery of deadpan humor. His performance as the cuckolded Raleigh St. Clair springs from these attributes, and so even an action as grave as pushing his dying brother-in-law through a hospital is tinged with comedy.
I don’t mean to say that Anderson doesn’t take Richie’s attempted suicide seriously or sympathize with his emotional pain. It’s just that our experience of that pain is always mediated by the film’s thick, pervasive style. As indicated by the film’s intergenerational subject matter and narrative segmentation (complete with ornate chapter headings and Alec Baldwin narration), The Royal Tenenbaums is intended to have the scope and detail of a novel, but informed by the literary eccentricities of Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson. Perhaps this helps account for the film’s tone, which is best embodied by Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow), Raleigh’s wife and Richie’s sister. Her face expresses stolid indifference for a majority of the film, only occasionally cracking into a smile.
Or maybe the key to the film’s tone is really patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman), the smooth-talking, washed-up ex-lawyer who waltzes back into his wife and children’s lives after being kicked out of his hotel room. He seems, on some level, to grasp the irreparable damage that his self-absorption has caused Richie, Margot, and their brother Chas (Ben Stiller), but he’s still unable (or unwilling) to change, feigning cancer to gain their forgiveness. To Royal, it’s all a big game that can be won through the right maneuvers, and to some extent the film sides with him. Royal is more childish than the children he hurt, and Anderson cherishes this wide-eyed childishness, even in adults who should know better.
Referring to his now-ex-wife’s fiancé Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Royal observes, “He’s everything that I’m not.” It’s true: he’s conscientious, responsible, and mature. The Royal Tenenbaums is about immaturity, and this manifests itself throughout the style and narrative. The Tenenbaum kids are unable to face trauma head-on and develop elaborate coping methods, regressing back to their time as child prodigies. With his perfectly symmetrical frames and fetishistic attention to background detail, Anderson is also regressing, trying to preserve childhood in an icy stasis. He’s less like J.D. Salinger, and more like Holden Caulfield himself. Having said all of this, I confess: I really love The Royal Tenenbaums, exactly because of everything I’ve cited. On the surface it balances empathy with irony, but underneath it shares a gnawing yen for innocence with Anderson’s heroes Satyajit Ray, Hal Ashby, and François Truffaut.
This brings me back to Richie’s attempted suicide and “Needle in the Hay.” (The biographical resonances with Elliott Smith and his suicide apply here too.) It’s such a shocking moment, arriving in the middle of a film that appears harmlessly quirky despite being about infidelity and familial discord. Although it’s presented in a style nearly identical to that of every other scene, and therefore isn’t really much of a departure, the gravity of Richie’s act eradicates any viewer expectations about the rest of the movie. It’s a brilliant, poignant narrative curveball that jump-starts the film’s momentum.
And it results in the image I started with, which so effectively encapsulates the film’s dual preoccupations of emotional dysfunction and formal harmony. It reveals a new side of Richie’s character with unexpected, uncomfortable openness. In short, it tests the limits of Wes Anderson’s art, and what new developments his vision can accommodate. Beyond all this, it’s one of those movie scenes that has burrowed itself permanently in my head: the split-second glimpses of Margot and Mordecai the falcon; the shaving cream on Richie’s face; and, finally, the blood streaming from his wrists. It sticks with me.