The Look of Love #4: Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


Gwyneth Paltrow, almost but not quite smiling.

In Wes Anderson’s near-perfect The Royal Tenenbaums, the filmmaker brings together elements from children’s literature, French New Wave cinema, and the dry genteel wit of Ealing comedies. Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, however, seems to be an aesthetic centerpiece for the movie. The characters wear the same clothes throughout the film; the humor is deadpan and melancholy; for all the maximalist tendencies of the set design, the color scheme is muted, much as the comic strip’s palette was downscaled from what was around it on the Sunday newspaper page; the characters—like Charlie Brown, Linus, and the whole gang—are essentially arrested adolescents, grasping for adulthood while being stuck in the costumes of youth, unable to say precisely what’s on their minds. Hell, Anderson even uses a snippet from Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) during a crucial scene.

Peanuts, at its best, blended the downcast and the high-spirited seamlessly. During an early scene in Tenenbaums, a small gem occurs that encapsulates everything that’s right about the movie’s view of love and everything that Anderson understands about Schulz’s sensibility. It’s among the most beautiful romantic gestures I’ve seen in American cinema, and among—unlike this sentence—the most understated.

In the first chapter, the narrator (Alec Baldwin) introduces the characters by setting up a crisis, and detailing how each reacts. The absent patriarch Royal Tenenbaum has announced that he’s dying of stomach cancer—he’s not, which is one of Anderson’s best and most bitter jokes—and the news is traveling fast. His son, ex-tennis star Richie (Luke Wilson), has been crossing the oceans by steamer aboard the Queen Helena, for the past five years, but decides to return home as soon as he hears what’s happening.

At the city dock, he emerges, halting, from the Royal Arctic Lines station. Even after years away, he’s immediately recognized by a fan, who asks to get a picture of him.

While this is going on, the narrator informs us that Richie had directed his old escort to meet him at the station, using the Green Line bus route, but that she, as usual, was late. Even shot from a distance, Richie looks nervous. We’re not sure if his anxiety is borne of joy or fear.

The “she” is unclear until the Green Line slides into view from the left.

She—Richie’s adopted sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow)—emerges from the bus, and our hearts stop along with Richie’s.

It’s not that Margot is beautiful—though she is—but rather that she’s beautiful to Richie. The frame rate slows down as the downbeat guitar and Nico’s low-slung and deadpan-flat voice takes over the soundtrack. “These Days” is the song for this moment—among the lyrics we hear are “These days, I seem to think a lot/ About all the things I forgot to do.” The tune is wistful, as tinged with regret as Richie and Margot are. Siblings or not, they’re in love with each other.

And they can’t say it out loud.

As Margot walks in slow motion towards us, we’re seeing her in the glowing radiance that Richie sees her in. Even though she clearly wants to see him—she took the trip, after all—she’s hesitant about him, worried about the long time since they last saw each other or even spoke on the phone, and conflicted about her feelings for him.

Paltrow’s performance is marvelous and it’s here—walking towards Richie steadily but warily—that she shines best. Margot almost but not quite smiles; she doesn’t know what face she should or even wants to broadcast at this moment.

The cuts between Richie and Margot’s visual perspectives, all in slow motion with Nico’s voice of regret, establish the depth of their relationship without a spoken word from either actor. Finally, Richie stands to greet Margot. Whether he’s resigned to this or glad to see her is uncertain.

One of them has to be the adult, so it might as well be Margot. As the frames start rolling at regular speed again, she breaks the silence. “Stand up straight and let me get a look at you.” He does so. “What’s so funny?” she says. He shrugs, but he can’t even pretend nonchalance well.

Finally, she cracks a sly grin—not quite a smile, but at least she’s moving in the right direction. “Well, it’s nice to see you, too,” she says. They come together for an embrace as if they’re just learning what their bodies are for. It’s awkward but full of love.

Margot closes her eyes, almost inhaling him in as they hug. It’s been far too long since they last did this.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to The Look of Love #4: Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

  1. Aleppo says:

    Very much enjoying this series.

  2. Walter says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Aleppo. It runs only occasionally at this point, though I’m trying to make it a once-a-month column, always on a Friday.

  3. Great site. Greetings from Poland

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