The Wes Dispatch #3: Trauma, Grief and Accepting Help in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ (2001)

Stick on a British Invasion record, meticulously organise your possessions and grab a Courtesan au Chocolat from Mendel’s, The Wes Dispatch is Flip Screen’s tri-weekly column dedicated solely to the pastel-coloured world of Wes Anderson. Every three weeks we’ll be taking a deep dive into the Texan auteur’s weird and wonderful filmography to count down to the release of his tenth feature – The French Dispatch. 

“Anybody interested in grabbing a couple of burgers and hittin’ the cemetery?”

There’s a throwaway line from the semi-improvised British sitcom Outnumbered that provides quite possibly the greatest analysis of the inescapable parental influence that, for better or worse, affects us throughout our lives. When challenged by his parents to take responsibility for reenacting the running of the bulls at Pamplona and trampling a number of his classmates, 9 year-old Ben (Daniel Roache) retorts “Most of what I am, I get from my genes, right? Which is you. And the rest of what I am I get from my environment. Which is you. So, whichever way you look at it, everything I do is down to you.”. A pretty concise, if slightly simplified, assessment of parental responsibility and influence. 

Thankfully if, for whatever reason, you take issue with receiving philosophical arguments from someone under the age of 10, the Bible also provides a handy representation of this. Admittedly, the Bible has a lot to say about the nature of parent-child relationships, even getting a mention in those rather important Ten Commandments that underpin the entirety of the Christian faith, but the idea of parental responsibility is best distilled into the concept of ‘the sins of the father’ and the effects of these sins on his offspring. This is best explained in Ezekiel 18:20 which states “the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father” and clarifies that, in slightly more gender neutral terms, children should not be punished for the actions of their parents. 

Ultimately, whether your appreciation of this concept comes from a relatively obscure episode of a late 2000s British sitcom or the best-selling book in human history, it brings us quite neatly to the premise at the heart of Wes Anderson’s third feature film The Royal Tenenbaums. Co-written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, the film follows the wealthy but highly dysfunctional Tennenbaum family. In particular, focusing on the strained relationship between eponymous patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), his former wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), his now-adult biological sons Chas (Ben Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson) and his adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). 

Screengrab from The Royal Tenenbaums. 3 children, 2 male and 1 female, sit at a table.
Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

In typical Anderson style, the film opens as a coming-of-age film with a flashback to Royal explaining to his children that their parents are separating amidst an exploration of the children’s respective prodigious talents. Namely Chas’ mathematical skills and business acumen, Margot’s gift for playwriting and Ritchie’s talents as a tennis prodigy. The film also introduces the Tennenbaum’s neighbour and Ritchie’s best friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) whose life follows a similar trajectory to the Tennenbaum children. 

The narrative then shifts to the present day and reveals that, shortly after announcing his intention to separate from his wife, Royal left his children’s lives and took up residence in a nearby hotel. 22 years later, his money and the hotel owner’s patience has finally run out leaving him with no choice but to return to his marital home and attempt to reconcile with his family. Meanwhile his children have become scattered across the globe, each beset with their own personal challenges which are far from the successes of their childhoods. 

Chas is now a widower with two small children, Margot is trapped in an unhappy marriage with renowned neurologist Raleigh St.Clair (Bill Murray) and, following a mid-match breakdown, Ritchie is sailing around the world. To add to his woes, Royal learns that his former wife is now engaged to her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) and refuses to speak to him, an issue which finally leads him to conclude that claiming he has terminal stomach cancer is his only hope at redemption. The remainder of the film then follows the ensuing chaos caused by Royal’s deception. 

On a surface level, it would be easy to conclude at this point that The Royal Tenenbaums follows a narrative arc that is similar to a ghost-less version of A Christmas Carol. Specifically, a story where Royal’s journey to redemption forms the emotional basis of the film and in many ways this is indeed the case. Inevitably, the extent of his deceit is eventually revealed and he is ostracised from the family. Then, in the style of a classic redemption arc, he is shown the error of his ways and by the end of the film he is able to make amends and reunite with his family. 

Screencapture from The Royal Tenenbaums. 5 people stand in a hallway.
Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

However, despite the familiar plot beats, upon closer inspection the emotional core of the film actually lies with his children and their struggles to achieve acceptance of the emotional trauma that their father’s behaviour has imprinted upon them. This is most clearly alluded to by the film’s title. Rather than The Royal Tenenbaums representing the royal status of the Tennenbaum family, it identifies the film’s 3 main characters – Chas, Margot and Ritchie – as versions of Royal Tenenbaum, indicating the role he has played in shaping the people they have grown up to become.

The narrative thread concerning the impact of Royal’s parenting on his children is woven throughout almost every single scene to differing extents, but it is almost exclusively shown to negatively affect their lives. In some cases it is glaringly obvious like the way that Chas is hugely overprotective of his own children and pushes them towards perceived achievement instead of allowing them to live normal childhoods and in others it is more oblique like Margot’s lifelong struggles with maintaining long-term relationships.  

For both Chas and Margot they also bear lifelong physical injuries that have ostensibly resulted from Royal’s treatment of them growing up. For example, Chas has a metal pellet embedded in his knuckle after being shot by Royal during a childhood game, which is particularly revealing considering they were both supposed to be on the same team. In the case of Margot, Royal’s constant reminders of her adoption led her to locate her birth family and become involved in a woodcutting accident resulting in her losing a third of her right ring finger, which is itself another hint to his role in her marital difficulties. 

Screencapture from The Royal Tenenbaums. A man and a woman sit on a sofa.
Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

Conspicuously, Ritchie initially appears to have gotten off fairly lightly both physically and mentally compared to his siblings and indeed during the film’s opening flashback he is shown to have the closest relationship to Royal who often took him on outings without his other children. Even when considering the breakdown he experienced during his final professional tennis match, it is difficult to compare his struggles to those of his siblings. However, throughout the film it becomes increasingly clear that this is a deliberate choice – to compare the unseen mental toll of Ritchie’s childhood to the more obvious physical toll experienced by his siblings. 

During the film, it is revealed that from early life Richie has been in love with Margot and his mid-match breakdown occurred days after her marriage to Raleigh. This marriage also served as the inspiration for his sailing trip. Ritchie’s hasty return to visit Royal is initially positive as he once again bonds with his father. However, the presence of Margot triggers a progressive decline in his mental stability which, following the revelation that she is engaged in an extramarital affair with Eli, leads him to attempt to take his own life. 

Screencapture from The Royal Tenenbaums. A man in a ship cabin holds up a camera.
Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

In many ways, this is the emotional turning point of the film and begins the process of emotional catharsis for both himself and his siblings. Crucially, it avoids the obvious trope of becoming merely the driving force behind Royal’s personal redemption arc and instead begins the process of all of the family members letting go of past trauma. As a result, Royal agrees to finally divorce Etheline which allows her to legally marry Henry. However, arguably more importantly, this motivates Chas to admit he needs professional help to overcome the death of his wife and prompts Richie and Margot to finally pursue a relationship together and deal with their issues together. 

Although in some ways this could be considered a saccharine fairytale ending that is ill-fitted to an absurdist comedy-drama, The Royal Tenenbaums is best viewed as a fable reflecting on the unwritten background of biblical representation of parental influence. Specifically highlighting that there is a crucial caveat to this representation – namely the importance of eventually taking responsibility to accept help and overcome previous trauma. 

Ultimately, although it clearly states that children will not be directly punished for the actions of their parents, it still eventually falls to them to seek help. As The Royal Tenenbaums suggests it is vital to find a healthy way to deal with trauma or face being left to uphold the lifelong burden that results from it and potentially risk the trauma manifesting itself into other people’s lives.

Header Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures