Suave Texan Wes Anderson announced himself as a director of unusual comic vision with 1996’s Bottle Rocket, and built upon this promise two years later with Rushmore; a moving tale of a precocious teen awkwardly blooming into adulthood. His third film, The Royal Tenenbaums, was his most ambitious yet. The freewheeling story focused on a dysfunctional family of child geniuses thrown back together following the unexpected return of their rascally (and supposedly dying) father Royal (Gene Hackman). Its most memorable scene was the shocking attempted suicide of one of its main characters.
Setting the scene
Ex-tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson) is the most sensitive of the Tenenbaum clan. While Ben Stiller’s Chas is a spiky, shellsuit-clad bundle of neuroses, and kohl-eyed secret smoker Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is lost to her own solipsism, it’s Richie who’s prepared to give father a second chance. Richie’s also the one who buries his pain the deepest. In a comic/tragic flashback, we see the on-court meltdown that ended his career, and it’s clear from his ever-present tennis garb that he’s yet to get over it. But Richie’s got a secret: he’s been harbouring a love for his (non-biological) sister Margot since childhood. Upon discovering that Margot’s been cheating on her husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) with his childhood best friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), Richie retreats to the bathroom and decides he can no longer face the pain...
Why it’s great
Up to this point, The Royal Tenenbaums has been quirky, wry entertainment underscored with subtle hints of melancholy. However, this shocking scene packs a huge emotional punch and heralds a shift in tone toward a genuine sadness. Further, it lays the ground for a final act in which true familial reconciliation can bloom. As is de rigeur for Anderson, the composition of the sequence is pristine. Richie is framed with elegant precision from the mirror’s point of view, while the bathroom is filled with an intense electric blue light, offset by a dusk-like shadow which fosters a palpable mood of melancholy.
The familiar cliché of having one’s life flash before their eyes before death is subverted by a kaleidoscopic, dazzlingly edited vision primarily comprised of shots of Margot. Just before taking a razor to his wrists, it’s Margot he sees - not himself. Anderson cleverly cuts back to a slow-motion rendering of the first time the two meet as adults in the film, where Richie was tongue-tied. Now we know why.
Key to the scene’s power is the overlaid song; Elliot Smith’s haunting acoustic ballad of loss and disappointment ‘Needle In The Hay’, whose lyrics (“But you idiot kid /You don't have a clue”) are appositely self-lacerating, and amplify the long-time absence of love in Richie’s life. At the scene’s close, a prostrate Richie is discovered by. St. Clair’s gawky protégé. Save for Smith’s song, the sound fades away, and the kid’s screams are inaudible, as if the the whole film has suddenly been submerged underwater. It’s this scene that takes it to those depths.
What happened next?
The scene’s gravity was bolstered retrospectively when a depressed Smith successfully (unlike Richie) took his own life in 2003. It’s now impossible not to view this scene in the gloom of that tragic irony. Meanwhile, Anderson followed this critical smash with a succession of films that cemented his place as one of modern America’s most accomplished - if divisive - visual craftsmen. After a satisfying detour into animation with Fantastic Mr Fox, his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, opened the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and received a largely warm critical and public reception. Luke Wilson, though never quite finding a part as touching and memorable as this one, has established himself as a likeable, easygoing Hollywood player.
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