The Royal Tenenbaums

The main characters in all four of director Wes Anderson’s films – Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – are emotionally damaged: haunted by loss and failure, and, especially in the third film, by deep longing and unsatisfied and/or inappropriate desire. This anguish is complicated by Anderson’s inclination to suspend his characters in arrested states of adolescence, obscuring their pain in satirical neurosis and denial. The dialogue is often obtuse (1), resulting in unreliable communication; and the formal precision of the framing is visually and symbolically suffocating. For Anderson’s characters, self-disclosure and emotional release are hindered in such an environment.

Considering the carefully placed emotional obstacles Anderson sets for his characters, it is remarkable that they eventually achieve a form of dignity and grace, perhaps more poignant for their fragility. In The Royal Tenenbaums, siblings Richie (Luke Wilson), Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Chas (Ben Stiller) are caught in a cycle of despair, triggered by the decay of their former genius: Richie is a failed artist and former professional tennis player; Margot a playwright with years-long writer’s block; and Chas an accountant with a “preternatural understanding of international finance”, who suffers a nervous breakdown following the tragic death of his wife. They each carry deep-rooted abandonment issues caused by the instability and subsequent departure of their father, Royal (Gene Hackman). Margot’s crisis extends further to include the painful disconnection from her adoptive mother, Ethaline (Anjelica Huston). Perhaps most problematic is the threat of incest Richie and Margot struggle to avoid, even as they are distinctly aware of their desire for one another.

Richie and Margot, in particular, are permitted to reveal their pain and longing in rare but profound moments that prominently feature evocative pop songs. These instances are especially effective because the music works as both catalyst and translator of the siblings’ emotions. Further, the songs Anderson has chosen are paradoxically wise and mature compared to the childlike environments he constructs for his characters. Music often supplants other elements of mise en scène in the expression of intense or complicated emotion in Anderson’s films. For instance, the most sophisticated articulation of Richie’s and Margot’s grief and longing are expressed through the lyrical content, instrumentation and associated imagery of three specific songs. It will be the focus of this article to examine these pieces of music (by Nico, Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, respectively) and their associated images within the context of the siblings’ inner turmoil. Further, a comprehensive analysis of how the music and imagery work together to both communicate emotion and, ultimately, absolve Richie and Margot, will be provided.

Margot: I’ve been out Walking

As is referenced in at least two of her plays, Margot Tenenbaum is the adopted daughter of separated parents: disbarred attorney Royal and archæologist Ethaline. Margot’s position is unique among the three Tenenbaum children: she is both pure (2), as she was not conceived by a sexual union between Royal and Ethaline, and therefore is disconnected from the family; yet, she is unable to completely separate from the Tenenbaums, and the common despair and failure that unites them. The pressure to remain “unsoiled” by the Tenenbaums, while simultaneously wishing to belong with them, drives her into a compulsive cycle of defiance and promiscuity, which she exhausts herself attempting to conceal or cleanse. (3) Her attraction to Richie is representative of this cycle; she is in love with him, in part, because he is Royal’s favorite – the gentle, forgiving, “good” son. Perhaps more importantly, Ethaline gave birth to Richie, and a connection to him may bring Margot closer to her. Conversely, the attraction is impure and inappropriate, so she must conceal it. Elements of Margot’s unhealthy cycle are further evidenced by nuanced behaviours: her 22-year cigarette smoking habit, which she keeps hidden from the Tenenbaums; her physical removal from the family (4); and her tendency to lock herself in the bathroom for hours, depressively smoking and soaking (cleansing) herself in the tub.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Although the threat of a forbidden relationship between Margot and Richie makes for scintillating drama, it is necessary to stress that the attraction might not exist if Ethaline hadn’t birthed Richie; Margot’s desire for Richie is inextricably linked to her longing for Ethaline. In a scene late in the narrative, Ethaline is sitting in front of a mirror, preparing for her wedding ceremony. While Ethaline applies lipstick, Margot watches, sitting in a windowsill, sucking on a cigarette inhaler: she is trying, unsuccessfully to quit smoking. Her cigarette inhaler could be read as a substitute for Ethaline’s breast, which Margot has been denied. In this same scene, African masks flank Margot. Much like the fur coat and stripped-cotton dress she wears as her uniform, the masks function as a metaphor for Margot’s secrecy. Further, they are a connection to Ethaline, an archæologist. When we see Margot’s childhood bedroom, it is decorated with similar foreign artefacts. It is perhaps no coincidence that when she and Richie run away together as children, Margot selects the African section of the Public Archives as their destination. Margot, like Ethaline, is well travelled: both have had international suitors and Margot was even briefly married to a “Jamaican recording artist”. In spite of Margot attempts to distance herself from the Tenenbaums, the closer she becomes to them.

Please Don’t Confront Me with My Failures

Ironically, much of what the viewer might infer about Margot is revealed through what she hides. Her repression suggests shame, guilt and quiet longing. In the first of the three musical sequences to be examined, Margot’s interior self is more openly displayed, allowing for hitherto unexpressed emotion. In this scene, Margot meets Richie, via the Green Line bus, following his year-long excursion at sea. As Margot descends the bus steps toward the pier where Richie is waiting, she is filmed in slow motion; the evanescent strains of Nico’s “These Days” monopolizes the soundtrack and provides the most complete and sincere translation of Margot’s emotions. The instrumentation, lyrical content and associated imagery work in tandem to create a confessional environment for Margot.

The Royal Tenenbaums

“These Days”, written by Jackson Browne and performed by Nico (who shares, perhaps not too incidentally, a strong physical resemblance to Margot) in 1967, has metaphorical connectivity with Margot in both its instrumentation and lyrical content. The tone of the song is melancholy and intimate: the guitar is recorded “up front,” lending a feeling of closeness and intimacy that both binds the message of the music to Margot and lends voice to Margot’s private thoughts. The sustained guitar chords require, and receive, resolution, and produce a metaphor for the unresolved tension and ultimate resolution of the siblings’ dilemma. The guitar is recorded cleanly, with the significant exception of a chorus effect. This works in two important ways: first, it intensifies the feeling of intimacy by magnifying the sound of the guitar, (making it seem very close to the speakers); and, second, it adds to the orchestral-like arrangement of the stringed instruments. The resulting orchestral sound provides an element of grace to Margot’s self-conscious descent. The tempo of the song is paradoxical to the tone, as the lively finger-plucking attack gives the song forward momentum and a hopeful mood, imparting the tentative Margot with the courage to continue her ascent toward a waiting Richie.

The lyrics of “These Days” may be read as an outward manifestation of Margot’s psyche. As such, they will be reproduced below in their entirety.

These Days

I’ve been out walking
I don’t do too much talking
These days, these days.
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
And all the times I had the chance to.

I’ve stopped my rambling,
I don’t do too much gambling
These days, these days.
These days I seem to think about
How all the changes came about my ways
And I wonder if I’ll see another highway.

I had a lover,
I don’t think I’ll risk another
These days, these days.
And if I seem to be afraid
To live the life that I have made in song
It’s just that I’ve been losing so long.
La la la la la, la la.

I’ve stopped my dreaming,
I won’t do too much scheming
These days, these days.
These days I sit on corner stones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten.
Please don’t confront me with my failures,
I had not forgotten them.

In accordance with the instrumentation, the song’s lyrics are intimate and immediately confessional: “I’ve been out walking/I don’t do too much talking” may be a reference to Margot’s travelling and/or promiscuity, and an acknowledgement that she feels ashamed. She does not want to talk about her past and worries that her mistakes might prohibit her from a fresh start: “And I wonder if I’ll see another highway.” She seems to be confessing that her unhealthy habits have gotten the best of her, and that she wants to put them behind her and move forward, much as the tempo of the song. “And if I seem to be afraid/to live the life that I have made in song/it’s just that I’ve been losing so long” may be translated as Margot’s desire to live her ideal life: one with Richie.

The dreamlike imagery that accompanies the song is in some ways subordinate to the music: as the scene is shot primarily in slow motion, it invites the viewer to slow down and listen. Further, the slowness is an indication of the gravity of both the song and the actions of the characters. It also imbues the imagery with a melancholic feel similar to the tone of the song. However, the wind blowing through Margot’s hair, and her shy, half-smile indicate the hope and joy she experiences seeing Richie for the first time in a year. Viewers may infer that they are observing Margot from Richie’s point of view (the camera is at one point behind his shoulder) and that, perhaps, one is seeing Richie’s dream, his hope for Margot.

Richie: I Can’t be Myself

Richie is, perhaps by default, a Christ-like figure in The Royal Tenenbaums: he is the only one of the Tenenbaum children who is unconditionally forgiving of his father’s mistakes; he is the first character to utter the words “I love you” and does so frequently; and, most significantly, he is willing to die in order to save himself and Margot from the futility of their reciprocal desire. Although mutual need drives the siblings’ attraction, Richie’s need is perhaps more selfless: it is a necessity born of his desire to save Margot, and to restore the grace and innocence he witnessed in them both as children. (5) In contrast, Margot’s is a more selfish need: she both requires Richie’s goodness to purify herself and to bring her closer to her parents, especially Ethaline.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Like Margot, Richie initially attempts to conceal his shame: he disguises himself under long hair and a full beard, and travels out to sea in a futile effort to put Margot behind him. Even though he had not played tennis in years – since suffering a nervous breakdown on the court after spotting Margot and her new husband in the audience – he is unwilling to remove the garb that symbolized both his athletic glory and the only Tenenbaum achievement that made his father proud. Significantly, Richie is the first to purge his uniform and his belongings, notably his cherished bird, Malachi, whom he sets free. It is Richie’s attempted suicide that offers the most profound evidence of his willingness to let go of his former self, and his need for absolution; this act and its accompanying music will be the focus of the second sequence to be examined.

I’m Going to Kill Myself Tomorrow

The impetus behind Richie’s attempted suicide may be interpreted in at least two ways: the act may be read metaphorically as his desire to be released from his inauthentic persona, to be re-born as the “real” Richie; and he also has a genuine need to sever the painful cycle of longing and restraint that has burdened he and Margot since childhood. The confessional song “Needle in the Hay” accompanies Richie from the moment a private detective discloses the truth about Margot’s promiscuity and secret life to him, through his suicide attempt and into the hospital. In this way, the music works to unite several scenes, with the volume of the song intensifying during those critical moments of his suicide attempt.

Written and preformed by Elliott Smith (6), “Needle in the Hay” was released in 1995, making it the most contemporary song (aside from those in the original score) used in the film; thus, the song stands out as much as the cold, blue lighting (most of the set is decorated in deep, warm reds) of the bathroom where the majority of the sequence takes place. The instrumentation is simple and intimate, consisting of an acoustic guitar and clean, double-tracked vocals. The bare, doubled vocals convey the presence and urgency of a whispered confession, as when Richie whispers, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow”, over the soundtrack. Missed notes and incidental pick noise were kept in the mix, resulting in a raw spontaneity that parallels the impulsiveness of Richie’s act (the viewer later learns that he did not write a suicide note until after the attempt). The acoustic guitar is recorded directly and the result gives the quality of an empty room: it resonates like the echo in a bathroom, where Richie cuts his wrists.

The Royal Tenenbaums

The lyrics of “Needle in the Hay”, a song about heroin addiction, are less literal in their connection to Richie than the lyrics of “These Days” are to Margot. Certainly, parallels may be drawn between the tormented, cyclical pain of a drug abuser and Richie’s own addiction to Margot. Although the repeated lyrics “I can’t be myself” are not present in the film’s diagesis, the sentiment is certainly reflected in the song’s vocal delivery and in Richie’s symbolically stripping himself of the hair, accessories and dark sunglasses that he had been hiding behind prior to the suicide attempt. “You ought to be proud that I’m getting good marks” is both a reference to the track-marks of the heroin abuser and also the cuts that Richie makes on his wrists with a razor blade.

The first chords of the song can be heard the moment Richie leaves the private detective’s office. Richie’s response to learning of Margot’s promiscuity seems not to come as a shock, but a confirmation: he feels responsible and is determined to take himself out of Margot’s painful equation. The song continues through a brief and inconsequential scene with Royal (connecting him to Richie), and into Margot’s husband’s house, where Richie has retreated. He opens and closes the door to the bathroom and the following occur simultaneously as the door shuts: the vocals begin and the bathroom is imbued with a flickering and cold, blue light. The flickering of the lighting in the bathroom echoes the slight stuttering of the music on the soundtrack and the rapidly edited scene. Richie looks at himself in the mirror, removes his wrist and headbands, and begins to cut his hair. After removing his sunglasses, he whispers “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow”, and begins to visualize a rapid montage of flashbacks featuring recent and distant memories: Margot descending the bus steps, he and Margot running away to the Public Archives and, interestingly, he also sees Margot’s memories: a disappointing eleventh birthday party when Royal tells her that her most recent play is “not believable.” The music stops abruptly when he is discovered, bloody, on the bathroom floor. It begins again as he is rushed down the corridor of the hospital, and stops, abruptly again, the moment Margot enters the hospital.

Wes Anderson has explained that the quote “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow” comes from a Luis Buñuel film that he admires (see the audio commentary on the Criterion Collection version of The Royal Tenenbaums); however, aside from being simply an artful addition to the scene, it also suggests – in tandem with the montage of his memories – that he wants to metaphorically kill the former Richie and, perhaps, “start over tomorrow”. That his memories include those that should logically belong to Margot suggest the following: in killing himself, Richie will also be killing a part of Margot; and there is a deep, psychic bond between the two of them. The next and last sequence to be examined will further explore the latter point.

Now, if it’s Time for Recompense for What’s Done

Following a truncated stay in the hospital, Richie sneaks out at night to return to the Tenenbaum house. As he waits outside the hospital for the Green Line bus, wrists bandaged and still in hospital garb, his father spots him and calls his name. Richie looks back but does not respond, as if his name means nothing to him. In these few moments, Richie seems to be in a trance-like state: when Royal calls for him, he shows no sign of recognition, and his pale face and newly shaved head make him appear frail and unlike the former Richie. The viewer is given no direct indication as to the reason Richie has decided to prematurely leave the hospital, although, as will be explored below, the deft use of non-diagetic and source scoring in this sequence suggests that Margot is telepathically calling him home.

As Richie ascends the bus steps, he is accompanied by Nick Drake’s (7) “Fly”, prominently playing on the soundtrack. Richie is seated, centred, in the back of the bus, and shown from a long angle, which suggests his detachment or the “trance-like” state of his psyche. The lush, stringed orchestration of “Fly” lends grace and beauty to Richie, and foreshadows an impending resolution. The presence of the mandolin creates a fragile sound, further paralleling Richie’s state: it creates a plink, plink, plink sound and abruptly disappears as if furtive or skittish. The orchestration is solid and tight, suggesting that Richie is similarly sound and focused. With every line delivered in the verses, each instrument plummets in tone, signifying the deep effort and exhaustion that had plagued Richie until this point. The timbre of Nick Drake’s vocals is golden and gravely: he sounds as if he’s straining and too overcome with exhaustion to sing at full capacity. One can hear the pleading lump in his throat as he delivers the following lyrics:


Please give me a second grace
Please give me a second face
I’ve fallen far down
The first time around
Now I just sit on the ground in your way

Now if it’s time for recompense for what’s done
Come, come sit down on the fence in the sun
And the clouds will roll by
And we’ll never deny
It’s really too hard for to fly.

Please tell me your second name
Please play me your second game
I’ve fallen so far
For the people you are
I just need your star for a day

So come, come ride in my street-car by the bay
For now I must know how fine you are in your way
And the sea sure as I
But she won’t need to cry
For its really too hard for to fly.

The Royal Tenenbaums

It is, perhaps, not too difficult to imagine Richie similarly pleading with Margot (“I’ve fallen so far/for the people you are”) or Margot to Richie (“I just need your star for a day”). As Richie arrives home and, like a child, climbs through the window to his bedroom, “Fly” becomes source music: Margot is listening to the song on a record player in Richie’s boyhood tent. The song began as non-diagetic music and moved across several scenes, ending at its presumed origin in the diagesis of the film. In this way, it lends continuity to the sequence. Richie follows the music via the Green Line bus to Margot (as she had done earlier in the narrative), who seems to be calling for him – willing him to meet her so they may “recompense for what is done”. This song, in particular, lends voice and acknowledgment to the characters; they are now stripped of their shields and ready to acknowledge what they’ve been concealing: “please tell me your second [real] name” and desirous of a new start: “please give me a second grace.” The last verse suggests that everything will be alright, in its way: “So come, come ride in my street-car by the bay/For now I must know how fine you are in your way/And the sea sure as I/But she won’t need to cry/For it’s really too hard for to fly.” Each of them knows how fine they are in their ‘real’ way, and there’s no need to cry, because escape (flying away) is too difficult to endure and no longer an option.

In each of the three sequences discussed, Margot and Richie move closer to authenticity and, ultimately, absolution and acceptance. Later in the narrative, Richie’s bird returns to him, his feathers whitened as if from a long, stressful journey, and Margot gives up trying to quit smoking and does so openly. Film critic Kent Jones wrote (8) that Anderson makes

winning, warm movies about angry, dissociated people who never consciously arrive at reconciliation but always stumble onto it on their never-ending quest to recover what they’ve lost (26).

In The Royal Tenenbaums, the characters do stumble, but the music lends a poetic, forgiving grace to their journey.


  1. As when a well-intended Royal Tenenbaum offers his grandsons the following condolences regarding the recent death of their mother: “I’m sorry for your loss; your mother was an extremely attractive woman.”
  2. One might notice early on in the narrative that the name of the ship Richie has been sailing on for a year (in an attempt to avoid or make peace with his love for Margot) is called the Cote d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast.
  3. Margot marries a well-respected and successful neurologist, Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), although she is unsure about her feelings for him. Her marriage lends an outward purity to Margot, although she is frequently unfaithful to her husband.
  4. Margot is often shown standing in doorways, in the background of scenes that feature the family in the foreground. This is especially evident in critical scenes, as when Richie is in the hospital following his suicide attempt. While the rest of the Tenenbaum family surrounds his bedside, Margot lingers, nearly hiding, in a doorway.
  5. Margot was a ballerina and wrote plays that featured children dressed as furry animals, and Richie made dozens of amateur paintings of Margot that reveal both of their naïveté.
  6. “Needle in the Hay” was a sadly prophetic musical choice, as Elliott Smith stabbed himself in the heart and died in early 2004.
  7. Yet another tragic parallel can be made between Richie and the composers of two of the songs discussed in this paper, as Nick Drake committed suicide in 1974, at the age of 26.
  8. See Kent Jones, “Family Romance”, Film Comment, November-December 2001, pp. 25–7.

About The Author

Carole Lyn Piechota is an adjunct instructor in the Communication department at Wayne State University, where she received an MA in media studies.

Related Posts