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The Royal Tenenbaums is a 2001 film directed by Wes Anderson that explores the factors that drove the Tenenbaum family apart and the factors that lead to a reconciliation between the family members. As The Royal Tenenbaums centers on the issues of the Tenenbaum family, it is important to understand the relationship that each member has with each other and how their individual personalities affect their relationships. In The Royal Tenenbaums, these characters, the film's structure, and various turning points contribute to the film's narrative construction and development.
The Royal Tenenbaums revolves around the Tenenbaum family. At the head of the family is Royal Tenenbaum.[footnoteRef:1] Royal is a former attorney whose disbarment was influenced by his son Chas. Throughout much of the film, Royal demonstrates that he has been less than an ideal father and husband. For instance, not only did Royal steal bonds from Chas's safety deposit box, which prompted Chas to sue his father, thus resulting in his disbarment, but he also shot Chas in the knuckles with a BB gun when he was a child; Royal constantly brings attention to the fact that Margot, his daughter, is adopted as though he is trying to insinuate that she is not truly part of the family; and he frequently took his son Richie to dogfights.[footnoteRef:2] [1: Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson (United States: Touchstone Pictures, 2001). ] [2: The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson (United States: Touchstone Pictures, 2001). ]
Etheline Tenenbaum[footnoteRef:3] is the Tenenbaum matriarch who's pending engagement to Henry Sherman[footnoteRef:4] is the impetus for Royal's attempted reintegration into his family. Throughout the course of the film, Etheline demonstrates that she is the most stable member of the Tenenbaum family. Additionally, she serves as a surrogate mother for Eli Cash, whom she treats as though he were one of her own children. [3: Anjelica Huston, The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson.] [4: Danny Glover, The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson.]
The Tenenbaums have three children: Chas,[footnoteRef:5]a widower, single father to Ari and Uzi, and formerly, a prodigy in investments and finance; Margot,[footnoteRef:6] the adopted daughter of Royal and Etheline and respected playwright with a highly secretive past; and Richie,[footnoteRef:7] a former tennis champion who suffered a nervous breakdown the day after Margot announced her marriage to Raleigh St. Clair,[footnoteRef:8] a neurologist. Eli Cash,[footnoteRef:9] the Tenenbaum children's friend and neighbor also plays a major role in the Tenenbaums' lives and has come to be a surrogate adopted son, as well as a successful Western novel writer. The relationship between Richie, Margot, and Eli is extremely complicated as Richie is secretly in love with Margot while Margot has had a sexual relationship with Eli. Upon discovering that Margot had a relationship with Eli, Richie has a second nervous breakdown, which prompts him to attempt suicide. [5: Ben Stiller, The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson. ] [6: Gwyneth Paltrow, The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson.] [7: Luke Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson.] [8: Bill Murray, The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson.] [9: Owen Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson.]
The intensely complex relationships that these characters have with each other are simplified through the film's narrative construct. The film follows a unique narrative structure in which the plot is played out as though it were a written novel. Each section of the film is subdivided into chapters, which are introduced through a voice-over that briefly explains what is going to occur in the scene. If one pays attention to the chapter intertitles, one can see that the narrator is reading what is written on the intertitles. The use of chapters to break up the narrative aid the viewers' understanding of complex relationships the characters have and how issues are resolved. In total, The Royal Tenenbaums is comprised of nine chapters, the majority of which begin with Royal; Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 7 begin with attention focused on Royal before transitioning to another issue, Chapter 3 focuses on Chas moving back to the Tenenbaum family home with his sons, Chapters 6 and 9 begin by focusing on Etheline and Henry, and Chapter 8 revolves around Richie. Paradoxically, there is no specific chapter that begins by focusing on Margot; one could argue that this is because Margot was never considered to be a true Tenenbaum by Royal and the exclusion of a Margot chapter is to drive the point of adoption home.
Within these chapters are three major turning points that drive the narrative: Ethel's engagement, Royal's cancer claims, Henry's accusations against Royal's cancer claims, and Richie's attempted suicide.[footnoteRef:10] The first turning point, Ethel's engagement to Henry Sherman, serves as motivation for Royal to get back into his family's life. Royal is further influenced by his eviction from the hotel that he has been living in for the past 22 years. Through this sudden opposition, the film establishes that Royal feels as though he has missed out on something and the threat of being replaced prompts him to attempt to rectify his past failures. However, Etheline's rejection of Royal prompts him to devise a scheme that will not only gain him entry into the Tenenbaum home, but also will bring his family together, he will claim he has cancer. This second turning point gives Richie, who has been living on a ship since his nervous breakdown, and Margot, who appears to have marital problems of her own, an excuse to return home. It is during the time that all the Tenenbaums are once again residing in the same house that the issues that drove them apart can be resolved. While Royal's return to the Tenenbaum home serves to bring the Tenenbaum siblings and Eli together, when the truth about Royal's cancer claims is exposed by Henry, the relationships between the siblings and their loved ones, implodes; Eli and Margot establish that their relationship is dead and Richie and Raleigh St. Clair discover Margot's darkest secrets -- her sexual promiscuity, her secret first marriage, her smoking habit, and her relationship with Eli. While it is unclear exactly what prompts Richie to attempt to commit suicide -- was it Eli and Margot's relationship, her secret first marriage, or the realization that they can never be together? -- Richie's suicide serves as the final turning point in the film. Not only does Richie's suicide bring the family back together again, but it also makes Royal realize that there are more important things in life and that his behavior was petty. Richie's attempted suicide allows him and Margot to resolve their feelings for each other, Royal to come to terms with the necessary divorce between himself and Etheline, and for Richie to reconcile with Royal. Furthermore, because of the redefined and amicable relationship that Royal now has with Etheline, Chas is able to recognize that his father is a changed man and allows him to be a part of his and Ari and Uzi's lives. [10: The Royal Tenenbaums, DVD. Directed by Wes Anderson.]
The film's book structure and voice over narration help to drive the story. The Royal Tenenbaums is not meant to be an overly dramatic film, but rather is intended to provide psychological insight into the Tenenbaum family and Royal's influence on his children's development. Furthermore, the audience is led to understand that film's structure is suppose to mimic Royal's memoirs and how he wants to be remembered.
German Expressionism is an early German film style that helped to redefine cinema and influence countless genres and directors. German Expressionism is an artistic movement that developed after World War I; Expressionism aimed to reflect the lasting disillusionment that resonated among Germans after the war. The German Expressionist movement was short lived and lasted from about 1919, when The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was shot, to 1933 when Hitler's regime took over the German film industry.[footnoteRef:11] German Expressionism's unique style and technique helped to establish it as a fundamental cinematic movement whose influences can be seen in such films as F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu.[footnoteRef:12] [11: Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin, A Short History of the Movies, 8th Edition, (New York: AB Longman, 2003), 148.] [12: Nosferatu, Netflix Instant Streaming, Directed by F.W. Murnau, (Germany: Film Arts Guild, 1922).]
One of the ways in which German Expressionism helped to revolutionize cinema is by taking the camera into the studio and moving the camera freely.[footnoteRef:13] This allowed Germans to experiment with what was shown on screen and how it was shown on screen. By moving a film into a studio, Germans could also experiment with the psychological impact that a film was able to convey through scenery, lighting, symbolism, and costume and set design.[footnoteRef:14] Thus, the camera was transformed into an impartial observer that mirrored a character's perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.[footnoteRef:15] [13: Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin, A Short History of the Movies. 148.] [14: German Expressionism in…[continue]
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