Thursday, 26 July 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Royal Tenenbaums

(Apologies; tonal inconsistencies and potential ramblings ahead. More than usual.)

Even before Nathaniel ordered us to rewatch The Royal Tenenbaums for his excellent “Best Shot” series I was thinking about the film when a friend brought up Wes Anderson. He scoffed at me because I said my favourite Anderson film (barring Moonrise Kingdom, which I’ve yet to see) was The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The fact that his favourite Anderson film is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou did not stop him from scoffing, mind you. I include this preamble because even as random knowledge suggests that this is Anderson's apex, I always feel he's the type of filmmaker whose "best" film is not relegated to a single entry.

Favourite, or no The Royal Tenenbaums is an admirable film. It intrigues me most because of the way it seems to just pour out of Anderson’s mind unencumbered which is a wee bit ironic considering that with its pervasive narrator, occasional focus on preciousness and its jumps in time. But, nonetheless, The Royal Tenenbaums is a film which unfolds with a salient amount of easiness which is deliberately deceptive because it scrutinises such uncomfortable familial issues – divorce, substance abuse, deadbeat dads, incest (!). I’m especially partial to artistic renderings of family relations because whether or not they’re inspired by the artist’s own life, they reveal such key things about the innate sadness which comes with familial relations.

In the fight of which of the Tenenbuam children has been most affected by their tumultuous lives, it seems unfair to put them in competition. But, I shall not lie when I say that I’m immediately drawn to the “adopted” child of the group so beautifully played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

I’m something of a fan of the unfortunately maligned Oscar winner, although the problem with being a Gwyneth fan is that sometimes I’m not sure where the line between appreciating her work ends and apologising for her begins. Her finest work is still her resplendent Viola de Lesseps, but Margot Tenenbaum is a close second. What makes Margot work so effectively for me in the film is the odd feeling I have that the character succeeds less because of Anderson’s writing and more because of Paltrow’s performance. After all: ostensibly dour, occasional wisecracking sister doesn’t have a significant lilt to it but then the performance itself seems to be so nuanced (credit probably would go to Anderson’s direction) that it transcends such a glib description.

Like all my best shot adventures, I took in excess of 20 screen-caps before I decided on the ones I’d focus on – all, but four, of these featured Margot. A quarter way through the film I realised in all general shots by eyes would start straying to the peripherals to fine where she was lurking. These two are significant.
(The one at the hospital is the one I prefer more.) I know this is best shot and not best performance (and the way the shot succeeds depends more on the direction and photography than this single performance, I’ll take about “shots” soon – I promise), but it’s striking how Margot’s grimness never comes off as mugging for the camera. Say what you will about Gwyneth as an actor, but it’s impossible to indict her for being a conceited performer. And, in relation to the actual construction of the SHOT we’re seeing so much at work in all of them that Margot’s remoteness just unfolds as a natural facet of the Tenenbaums. As in, we just know that one family member who arrives at family functions and remains isolated from it all – not necessarily uninterested but ostensibly unflustered, aaah but underneath.
It’s why I toyed so long with this as a potential candidate for my best shot. Sure, Margot’s far removed from the other family members, but she’s still crushed in that very moment.

Ultimately, familial drama notwithstanding, The Royal Tenenbaums depends on its comedy and in commenting on Margot’s aloofness these two shots touch on what makes the humour in the character work.
(I didn’t have time to mention it explicitly, but Anjelica Huston is just fabulous in this film.) Mother and daughter relations aren’t paramount in the film, but the rapport of the two performers thrills. It’s the same wan expression in both scenes, but it’s not Margot being dour she just seems to be. I actually did laugh out loud in that "nicotine inhaler" scene.

But, the laughter is a sad one. Because, it is not comedic that Margot seems so equally unresponsiveness to joy and sadness. And then, that moment comes which elicits a new response in her and it seems to fill the entire screen with joy.
I’d be lying if I said I was truly invested in the romantic entanglements of the two, but I’m so invested Margot’s quest to belong than the sanguinity of her expression and the peace which seems to take over the entire screen wins me over nonetheless.

How could I resist the promise hope in the wake of potential sadness?

Head over to chez Nathaniel for a series of great posts on best shots in The Royal Tenenbuams.


Tim said...

I have to be honest and say that I like some of your runner-up shots even better than your actual pick. But that said, it's pretty great, for the reasons you point out and for that really nifty triangular composition between Margot, Richie, and the hawk. It's like an Anderson shot that goes above and beyond his normal tics.

Paolo said...

I almost felt bad excluding female characters in my entry that I thank you for highlighting Margot and to a lesser extent, Etheline.

I also saw the same best shot GIF in one of the tumblrs I follow, labelled 'When I'm the only drunk person in the room.' Paltrow is so Burtonesque although she doesn't have to wear black to show how sad she is. We love Margot!

Jose SolĂ­s said...

Now I feel Gwynnie was robbed of an Oscar nod for this.

Amir said...

Yes, Angelica Huston is just fabulous. Of all the performances in this film - and all of them are nearly or definitely the career best work of each actor, in my opinion - I would have loved to see her nominated for an Oscar for this. But that's often the problem with strong ensembles (see: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).

Love your faouvrite shot, too.

Alex Jowski said...

Great pick - that shot really captures a lot of the feeling of this movie.

I still feel this is Wes Anderson's best movie.

Marcy said...

I think Gwyneth Paltrow is wonderful in this film, so thanks for highlighting her work here. I find Gwyneth Paltrow's entire persona (GOOP, weird baby names, pretentiousness) rather obnoxious, but she can be quite impressive.

Almost in the same way she charmed in Emma, I find her pretty charming as Margot too, despite they are very different characters. It's the raccoon eyes and how Paltrow expresses them--so sad, so aimless, yet so alluring. Or it's Wes Anderson's ability to write interesting characters and Paltrow's luck that she got to play one of them. I'm more partial to the latter, but I can't deny Paltrow's contribution.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

tim i sort of went back and forth (and back again) with my choice because no single shot jumped out, i ended up settling on the one which made "sense".

paolo now, i want gywnnie in a burton movie. i know everyone hates him now, and alice in wonderland is not perfect, but imagine her as the white queen opposite hbc!

jose ummm, duh!

amir ugh, tinker tailor got royally screwed re performances. but, i'm still mighty pleased that oldman managed a nod.

alex i feel i need to rewatch all of his filmography to reassess.

marcy hahaha. good note on the eyes. it's not just the smokey eye makeup, her eyes are fascinating.