Written by: John Heffernan
Often people fantasize what life would be like amongst the top tier of the social class pyramid. Typically, the upper class has the connotation of being loyal and together no matter what happens. The statement, money gives power, holds strong in this connotation, as it has the power to bring the members together, the equivalent of the middle class’s Thanksgiving. However, director Wes Anderson dramatically and comically points out the struggles and obstacles that a divided upper class family goes through despite their social standing in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). In the climactic conclusion to the film, the family comes together to reunite and form the family unit that is synonymous with the cultural connotation of the “family unit”. After years of sitcom television shows, the cultural significance of family has been dumbed down to such an insignificant level, that the only things that bring families together is holidays. Wes Anderson highlights the fractured nature of relative relations, in his film The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), by use of a sepia color scheme and divided mise en scene to encapsulate the boiling point to which the Tenenbaum family is brought to.
A film’s color scheme can be crucial to the overall mood that a film gives to its audience. For The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) a sepia color scheme of browns, yellows, and amber like reds give a warm feeling to many of the scenes. For example, when the main character Royal, portrayed by Gene Hackman, is leaving his children for the first time, he blends into the background of brown with an equally brown suit. He symbolically is merged with the background, as he literally is taken out of his children’s life. Also, the color scheme warm feeling also reflects the bitterness the children must feel toward their father, but do not explicitly express it due to their proper nature. However when the children eventually grow up, the bitterness amongst them metamorphoses into external aggression. The character Chaz, portrayed by Ben Stiller, is the most vocal out the group, and respectively wears a red jumpsuit throughout the entirety of the film. This reflects the boldness and intensity of his anger, by replicating it the boldness of his attire. Additionally, the character is constantly paranoid of the imminent threat of death, which claimed his wife before the events of the film, so the red could equally symbolize the danger that he sees in nearly every scenario. Furthermore, his children wear matching red jumpsuits that show the controlling nature, that he unconsciously adopts from his absent father. On the subject of clothing, Danny Glover plays the newest addition to the family as step-father Henry Sherman. The character predominantly wears a blue suit which contrasts the sepia look of the film, and furthermore when he begins his relationship with Royal’s ex-wife Etheline Tenenbaum, played by Anjelica Huston, the blue color palette he wears is reflected upon her. She wears bright blue jeans and is seen in more public colorful locations in order to symbolize the relationship being meaningful. Lastly when Richie Tenenbaum, portrayed by Luke Wilson, begins to shave his beard and thusly alter his character immensely, he cuts deep into the veins his arms. The blood running from them has a deeper impact as it contrasts with the overall blue palette of the bathroom, showing the significance of this character shift. While color scheme can be explicitly seen by the audience, the mise en scene of the film may fly over the heads of even the most intelligent of audiences.
“All memory of the brilliance of the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster.”- Narrator (Anderson, W. (Producer)…etc)
Mise en scene can have such a high impact on even the simplest of scenes. For example the earlier scene of Royal confessing his departure to the children. He is positioned in the exact middle of the scene, perfectly aligned with the chairs, candles, and chandelier, symbolizing his egocentric nature that divides the family apart. It is Royal’s egocentric behavior that is the catalyst for the family’s demise, as evident in his scene with his doctor. Royal yet again is center frame but is more in the foreground than his doctor. This effect magnifies Royal to be in a bigger space than the smaller doctor, undermining the doctor’s authority. Another noticeable divide in the family is evident in the scene in which Royal tells Etheline that he is dying. A tree is positioned in the foreground that literally divides the divided couple. One character who has not yet been referenced is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenenbaum, a rebel and progressive force throughout the film, going from husband to affair to brother in the two hour span of the film. When she goes to pick up Ritchie and the dock from his sea excursion, she is in the foreground while a line of buses passes behind her in the background. Meanwhile Ritchie is seen sitting in front of his literal baggage, which symbolizes the metaphorical baggage that he has that plagues the family.
Family divides can be detrimental to everyone in it. The narrative structure of The Royal
Tenenbaums (2001) reflectively jumps and cuts to different character’s subplots which each are caused by one action, Royal’s departure. It is with this absence that which the entire family collapses onto itself and in turn bitterly divides them. It is when Royal returns from his departure that the family comes back together to form the conditional bond that the audience is familiar with. Anderson’s film simmers the both realistic and comedic elements of the typical American family that allows it to stand out from the average “popcorn-flick” of family drama. Anderson’s intent is to show how the strength and togetherness of a family is what defines it.
Anderson, W. (Producer), Mendel, B (Producer), Rudin, S. (Producer), Simmons, R. (Executive Produce), Sweeney, W. (Associate Producer), Wilson, O (Executive Producer), & Anderson, W. (Director). (2001). The Royal Tenenbaums [Motion Picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.