Wes Anderson never wastes a frame. Every shot in his filmography is packed with so much information: about his quirky-but-traumatized characters, their ornately imagined worlds, and his own artistic influences. So his masterpiece—can I say “masterpiece”? Yeah, let’s go with that—The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is an especially apt pick for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series. As luck would have it, I actually wrote about my favorite (bloody) shot in the movie a couple years ago in a piece called “Suicide and Irony in The Royal Tenenbaums.” So this time I’ll discuss my second-favorite shot, pictured above.
From left to right, the shot’s subjects are Richie, Henry Sherman, Etheline, Chas, and Margot; “Dr. McClure,” who’s actually Royal’s accomplice Dusty, stands behind the camera as he informs them of Royal’s fake prognosis (i.e. “not good”). I love the sheer wealth of data Anderson embeds in their reactions, outfits, and positions within the shot. Take Henry Sherman, for example. Of the five, he has the weakest tie to Royal, so it makes sense that he’s located in the back and tough to read. As always, he’s well-dressed and radiates polite professionalism, but here it’s ambiguous. Is that mild concern over his would-be rival’s illness, or a growing skepticism of it?
In the foreground, Richie and Chas stand side by side, but with opposite dispositions. Richie’s receding, tucked away behind his shades, beard, and headband, whereas Chas is demonstrative, leaning in toward the camera with knitted brow and crossed arms. Although raised in the same household, they’ve developed radically different coping techniques, with Richie—the “Baumer,” a retired tennis player and mass of failed potential—settling for passivity where tracksuited business prodigy Chas opts for aggression. More than anyone else in the family, Richie’s icy demeanor aligns him with the object of his forbidden love, Margot, who slouches against the corner in the far end of the frame.
It’s a pose that Gwyneth Paltrow reprises later at the hospital, and it’s consistent with the rest of her aloof performance. For years she’s been wounded by her father, so now that he’s “sick” (and her marriage is collapsing) all she can do is retreat to the nearest surface or plant herself in the middle of the frame like another one of Anderson’s antique fetish objects. Anything to avoid acting or interacting with this absurd family drama. And finally, there’s poor Etheline, rigid and anxious as she anticipates Royal’s death. Anjelica Huston, in this shot and throughout the film, plays such a complex string of emotions: scared for her children’s father, aware of what a bastard he is, with a vague sense of obligation to reconnect with him despite her encroaching remarriage.
It’s a lot to get across without dialogue, but of course Huston’s up to the task, and she’s aided here by Anderson’s spatial eloquence. So many of his distinctive shots depend on great blocking in confined areas, whether it’s the Whitman brothers aboard the titular train of The Darjeeling Limited, or preteen girls putting on bird costumes in Moonrise Kingdom. Superficially, this scene in The Royal Tenenbaums is just a matter of exposition, needed to further establish Royal’s scam and Chas’s animosity. But thanks to the dense composition and the actors’ static faces, it becomes a quick emotional cross-section of the whole movie.
(For more evidence of Anderson’s pictorial flair, watch Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay “The Prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums, Annotated.”)