When Royal Tenenbaum mentions visiting his dead mother’s grave with his kids, Margot, his adopted daughter, reminds him that she was never invited to go as a child. His response is priceless for its aloofness and insensitivity: he claims he was never quite sure she wanted to go, since the old woman wasn’t really her grandmother. Writer and director Wes Anderson gives his titular character quite a number of such “thick” moments. At first glance, they seem outrageous. But once we peel back the fantastical elements of Anderson’s cinematic style, we find such moments grounded in the truthfulness of lived experience.Anderson’s third feature, The Royal Tenenbaums offers a spot on portrayal of familial dysfunction, viewed through the lens of a comic fairy tale world where everything seems slightly skewed from reality. When Royal hears that his wife of many years has received a marriage proposal, he determines to recapture his place in the family. Yet when he arrives, he’s surprised to be met by children who are essentially unchanged from their adolescent selves. They’ve simply not been able to move on and grow up, a result of the damage caused in the wake of Royal’s leaving two decades earlier.The way the rest of the film interacts with images of death, suffering, and loss drives home the pain resulting from broken homes. This pain doesn’t subside simply because people go on with their lives as they had before the split. Rather, a fundamental change of direction is needed for this family, and it only comes after Royal is found out for faking a terminal illness, exposed for the liar he is. At that moment he realizes the change must begin with him, the failed patriarch.
Three scenes at the family plot illustrate the progression of the Tenenbaums. Early in the film, Royal and the kids visit his mother’s grave. Rather than it being a bonding time, it serves only to illustrate the anger of Chas, the alienation of Margot, and the misdirection of Richie. True to form, Royal remains completely oblivious to the causes of their feelings, acting instead as if he is the one being wronged by their insensitivity.
Much later in the film, after Royal has been booted from the Tenenbaum home, he visits the grave alone. He has been officially removed from the family. They’ve all rejected him, even Richie the peacemaker. But the seeds of change were planted in that rejection, so this time, he uses the opportunity at the graveside to reflect on his separation from the family. What should he do for them? He decides to give his wife Ethel a long overdue divorce, paving the way for her to proceed with her wedding to Henry.
The final time at the cemetery comes after Ethel and Henry’s wedding. In the aftermath of the wedding, Anderson employs a fantastic two and a half minute tracking shot that effectively brings together the once-fragmented family. The unity between form and content plays out beautifully here, and after a couple of subsequent scenes, we find out Royal has died.
Anderson once again brings us back to the cemetery. This time though, as the entire family gathers to pay their last respects, it’s clear they’ve been changed in their opinion of Royal Tenenbaum. His death engenders fond memories, rooted in the change of direction he made. He saw the destruction caused by his selfish actions and purposed to offer something positive in its place.
The cemetery, once only a place of death and alienation, takes on a new character at the film’s conclusion. Without necessarily leaving those negative or neutral things behind, it also becomes a place where family and friends gather to think about a life well lived. Of course, that’s only the case when the people buried in cemeteries decide to live this life in a way worthy of such an honor.