Wes Anderson Can't Let Anything Go | Analysis by Tia Sarkar

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As a child, I spent a lot of time pretending to be an adult. We played doctors, homemakers, and explorers. Plastic stethoscopes, plush teddy bears, and tiny toy cars were the vessels through which we lived out a fantasy. We romanticized adulthood—infinite potential and opportunity projected onto a far off, seemingly unattainable time and place. As childhood wanes, these inconsequential props and play periods become wistful memories reflecting the ultimate tragedy of adulthood: It is often not what we expected.

Wes Anderson seems to understand the crippling disappointments of maturation better than any contemporary filmmaker. That these disappointments can all be tied to the stuff of our childhood is deceptively demonstrated by his trademark aesthetic. For Anderson, style is substance. His third feature film, The Royal Tenenbaums illustrates this best.

The Royal Tenenbaums has the trappings of a grossly trite story: absent father; divorce; lies; wasted potential; estrangement. The film’s storybook narrator, Alec Baldwin, introduces the once-extraordinary Tenenbaum family and how 22 years of betrayal reduces three child prodigies to three unfulfilled and disappointed adults. One winter, a lie from the family patriarch - the titular Royal - brings them all back home. 

While the bones might resemble clichés, the devil is in the details. Anderson infuses his film with an unmistakable look: saturating the screen with exaggerated sepia toned set dressing. His distinct style prompts descriptors like twee, whimsical, or idiosyncratic, even eliciting ire from some. To the contrary, these purportedly overwrought aesthetics belie The Royal Tenenbaums with a brutal emotional interiority. 

Anderson’s accoutrements all find their roots in the past. He loves typewriters, monogrammed luggage, and great coats. By extension, his characters project the deepest parts of their identity onto their old stuff. The most overt example of this can be seen in the Tenenbaum children’s costuming. Richie and Margot Tenenbaum wear the exact same outfits they wore as children, literalizing their stuntedness. Even the most minute details Anderson’s detractors often dismiss as shallow reveal something deeper about the past. Margot Tenenbaum has a secret smoking habit which she started as a child in the 1970’s. Accentuating her attachment to that time, Anderson makes the conscious choice to have Margot exclusively smoke a discontinued 1970’s Irish brand of cigarettes—a choice he felt made her secret that much stronger and stranger. 

Even the attachment his characters have to their present day materials stem from past wrongs. Ben Stiller’s character, Chas Tenenbaum, loses his wife to a plane crash prior to the film’s start. Chas’s arc centers heavily around his avoidance of the grief surrounding this loss, subsequently manifesting as a deep need to over-prepare for the worst. Anderson costumes the adult Chas and his two children in red tracksuits; so they could be prepared to run away at any given point—especially from their emotions. 

More than his characters, Wes Anderson himself cannot let the past go. In some cases, he brings his baggage to set, literally. Like Anderson’s own mother, Tenenbaum matriarch Etheline, played by Anjelica Huston, is an archaeologist; Anderson passed on several photographs of his mother in aviator jackets or on archaeological digs to Houston throughout production. In an interview, she recalled Anderson’s insistence that she wear a locket which once belonged to his mother. She finally asked, “Wes, am I playing your mother?” Anderson insisted this was not the case. 

Royal reunites the Tenenbaums in hopes of moving on from the past, but material remnants of their once promising potential litter the halls of the family house on Archer avenue. From trinkets and toys to paintings and dioramas rendered decades ago, this family’s stuff is more than just stuff. It’s a tangible reminder that childhood is long gone and adulthood is far from what it was cracked up to be. 

Looking beyond the preciousness of Anderson’s artifice, audiences are routinely rewarded. A title card early on in the film introduces the cast of characters. It features a drawing of a hawk, a note reading “22 years later,” and at the very bottom of the frame in lowercase italics a dedication: “to my family.”  

Wes Anderson envelops The Royal Tenenbaums in what could have been from what once was—establishing a career-long affinity for nostalgia. Nostalgia, it turns out, is a compound word from the Greek nostos meaning homecoming and algos for pain—an apt distillation of the film’s plot. Anderson’s intentions with props and production design are far more than twee quirks. They are why he makes movies.

The Royal Tenenbaums plays on 35mm December 9-11 at Ragtag Cinema as part of Ways to Stay Warm. Tickets are on sale now.
Tia Sarkar is the Cinema Operations Coordinator at Ragtag Cinema. She is on Letterboxd.