Les Enfants Terribles

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family.”
– Ram Dass

When Royal Tenenbaum is found out by his family—when they discover (not a spoiler) that in order to live with them, he’s only pretending to have stomach cancer (while eating cheeseburgers and scoffing Tic Tacs from medicine bottles)—he accepts his eviction and retreats to the 375th Street Y. There’s something about this hyperbolically placed men’s association which locates the exact artistic terrain of The Royal Tenenbaums.

It correlates with the more modestly numbered streets of Washington Heights where you’ll find a hilly Manhattan full of shambling buildings. The neighborhood is downtrodden and grand: a reminder of a time when New York’s greatness was still under construction. One of my friends, a new New Yorker, moved up there because he thought that’s where he’d find the real city. Trying to find the real New York, of course, is like trying to live in the real Paris – the Platonic version exists only in novels and films. The Royal Tenenbaums is, in part, a love letter to this imaginary Manhattan, a fable which lifts liberally from other renditions of the place, a Calvino-esque invention in which the streets extend to infinity.

The Tenenbaums can exist only in this magic periphery. They are an extended family of oddities: prodigies, addicts, hustlers, and students (of anthropology, of the Old West, of aberrant neurological disorders). They come together when, out of financial need and petty jealousy, the patriarch fakes an illness to reclaim his home and his wife.

There is no formula to the Tenenbaums story: Royal’s fakery is a child’s fraud, easily detected and exposed. But his presence is enough to draw the characters together. One by one, the stunted siblings return to their childhood home and confront their troubles with family and maturity. Chas is angry and terrified after losing his wife. Playwright Margot is blocked, unhappily married, and having a secret affair with her childhood neighbor. Richie has been literally afloat – wandering the seas since a breakdown on the professional tennis circuit. The rest of the story follows the characters falling apart and reconfiguring their lives.


The Tenenbaum’s world is a cinematic picture book. Probably the greatest strength of Anderson as an artist is his attentiveness. Each detail hums: the dalmation mice, the kestrel named Mordecai (which was held for ransom during the shooting), the taxidermied capybara, the closet of board games, the tent in the living room with illuminated globe and record player. This hand-drawn, low-fi quality is singular—even important—in a world of Photoshop and Autotune. It offers an ideal of the genuine, as the product of things gleaned and re-envisioned.

Part of the pleasure of Anderson’s productions is recognizing their inspirations: the French New Wave, the British Invasion, literature for and about children. Like Bergman, Kubrick and Woody Allen, Anderson even employs a signature font (Futura Bold, in his case). But his works wouldn’t persist if they were only pastiche.

His world reminds me of that line from Borges’ “The Aleph”: “Each thing…was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe.” The viewer can relax in the contemplation of meticulous construction. There are things we’ll never know about the narrative – the origins of conflicts and names and visual motifs – but there is an assurance that they have meaning. Who could ask more from art than that – to impart a kind of Kabbalistic importance to every observation?

Of course, this relentless aestheticizing can raise objections. One might say it allows Anderson to explore only the shallow end of emotions—or, at best, the depths of adolescence, a state in which many of his characters linger. But perhaps this is most relevant: these days the condition of youth can be indefinitely extended (or at least pretended). Time and shifting perceptions do penetrate this chrysalis; the Tenenbaum children are traumatized in the process.

Anderson describes The Royal Tenenbaums as a film about people who peaked early, whose best years are perhaps past. In a way, the movie interrogates the implications: childhood and genius are two cherished states in Western art and culture. Both seem to offer a less fractured sense of self; to allow one to conquer what might otherwise be unbearable; to be celebrated for achievements and indulged in unruly behaviors.

But the Tenenbaums’ genius is more coping mechanism than gift. Royal is a pathological father – negligent toward Chas and his adopted daughter Margot, doting upon Richie only until his failure on the tennis court. Royal possesses the same childish vendettas and selfish goals as Rushmore’s Max Fischer. His wounded children seem to have been formed in reaction, elaborating their own intense interests and abilities to remedy his neglect. What happens when those techniques fail? The kind of crisis that envelops all these characters.

Anderson gets terrifically glum performances from his actors. Margot is not just venomously funny; she is affectingly fragile and unable to help herself. It’s certainly Paltrow’s best role. As Royal recognizes, she is unfair to her husband and the men who love her. Royal reproves her by saying, “You were a genius.” She retorts, “No, I wasn’t.” We’ll never know—it’s quite likely that her assessment is severe (she graduated valedictorian at age 12). But maybe her comment reflects a different idea of genius, classifying it as a resident spirit that visits unpredictably. Or maybe she’s bereft: Margot’s strength resides in her plays and in her secrets. Both betray her in adulthood.

Richie is the heart of the film, a silent sufferer, a less active character but one who wrestles with a moral compass. The success of the film is in Richie’s suicide attempt – his dysphoria is real, unmitigated, and without solution. When Richie reveals to Margot the stitches that lace up his veins, there is visceral discomfort.

The characters with the more evident wounds – the grieving, bristling Chas and the drug addled Eli – are the ones who can negotiate a more immediate solution to their problems. And the wedding ending—even with car crash, dog death and an intervention—are easy fixes to Tenenbaums’ ambiguities. The more complex characters reflect the impossible contradictions in life. Margot and Richie’s love can be incestuous and also meaningful and pure; Royal’s narcissism can also yield generosity and nurturing.

I used to have a game: whose family out-Tenenbaumed the other? The implications are multiple – it’s an avidly individualistic family, united (at least at the start) more by their single-minded pursuit of their own interests than by mutual affection or understanding. They’re a genius clan divided by betrayal and disaster. But who wouldn’t want to be a Tenenbaum? As Royal, the con artist father, understands: they’re the most compelling group of dysfunctionals around.