Wes Anderson’s movie THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS can be seen as a study of a family attempting to remain spiritually and domestically functional, even after the father of the family, “Royal Tenenbaum”, fails in his familial responsibilities and is expelled from the family by the reigning matriarch, “Etheline”, while the entire family sits in witness to the expulsion of the Machiavellian narcissist that is their father.
Whether the writers knowingly intended to reflect the key relationships and beliefs of Confucianism, or they were merely creating a story of family dynamics to entertain I do not know, it appears however that the film has all the main elements and tenets such as Sacred Past, Social Code and Self Improvement of the Philosophy of Confucius.
Although the Patriarch is deposed and sent to live in exile, there is no divorce, almost as if he is sent on a quest to discover in himself the better person he can become and in doing so, have the right and ability to reclaim his place in the family palace.
We soon learn that Etheline takes her role as matriarch, educator and nurturer seriously. Etheline takes upon herself the complete education and edification of her entire brood. It is through her belief in personal growth and “success” through education that she finds the drive to rear her children as the geniuses that they are universally believed to be.
The children: Chas, eldest son and budding real estate tycoon left widowed by a tragic plane crash left to rear his children in his own image. Margot, sister of Chas and Richie. the adopted daughter, whom the father never lets forget of her less than blood relationship in the family, a child playwright prodigy traps herself in her bathroom secretly chain smoking while hiding from her husband and her strange marriage. Richie, brother, the tennis pro that, while in a championship match, completely loses it and remains, what seems like, lost in time as he broods over the fact that he is romantically in love with his adopted sister while living like a man without a country on cruise ship.
Each child is driven back to their family home due to tragic circumstances that all seem to revolve around a lack of any philosophical understanding of the self. The family is also extended to the neighbor, and Richie’s friend Eli who grows up with the children educating himself through following the examples of his extended family, and later in life, becomes romantically involved in an affair with Margot.
Soon the father, too, is driven back to his family home due to his lack of financial self-support, and the frightening news delivered to him by his spy and longtime servant, Pagoda, that his wife is becoming romantically involved and planning a marriage to her longtime friend and accountant, Henry Sherman. In his Machiavellian narcissistic way, Royal feigns a serious illness, stomach cancer, and pleads for permission to return home to his family to make amends and spend his last days with the people he most loves while waiting out his demise from terminal cancer.
With all the scenes set in this film and this study of functional “dysfunctionalism” we can yet find many associations with Confucianism and the pursuit of self-edification.
All of the Key Relationships of Confucianism are here: Ruler/Subjects with Royal and his loyal subject Pagoda, Etheline and her children as well as her loyal suitor Henry; Father and Son; Royal and Chas, Chas and his own sons; Elder brother and younger brother; through Chas and Richie, Husband and Wife; Royal and Etheline; Friend and Friend; Richie and Eli. The development of these relationships from early on and throughout the movie evolved from dysfunction, to the point of acceptance and respect.
As Royal developed the relationship with his grandchildren through the same irresponsible behavior as he did with his own children; Chas began to see how his father, even though he was a disloyal narcissistic, did have love and understanding for him and how that love and respect was a defining force in his own life and the relationships with his own children. Margot’s estranged husband, through the work of a private investigator, discovers a colorful, if not self-indulgent past and confronts her and ends up leaving her, giving Margot the impetus to study her own past and relationships and to come to an understanding of her feelings and love for her adopted brother Richie.
Royal, coming to grips with his own past and behavior realizing that happiness is all he wants for his family gives Ethel the divorce she desires so that she can marry Henry; at the wedding Eli speeds down the street with a mescaline riddled brain and nearly kills Chas’ children, if not for Royal’s quick action at pulling them out of harm’s way. Eli however does succeed in killing the family Beagle and stopping the marriage, Royal again displays his virtue by purchasing the firemen’s Dalmatian to replace his grandchildren’s dead pet.
It was their own “Sacred Past” that each of these characters had to study to understand how to behave and be virtuous. Their final understanding of their pasts and how they behaved brought them to a place where they could develop the “Social Code” that would guide them all on their personal and communal road to “Self-Improvement”