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Located on Archer Avenue in New York City, the Tenenbaum family home, originally purchased by Royal Tenenbaum in the winter of his 35th year is equal parts a family home as it is a shrine to the talents of his sons Chas, Richie and adopted daughter Margot. Three extraordinary children who would grow up to be extraordinarly dysfunctional adults with the home serving as the location of the most unique of family reunions.
Having found his now trademark style of giving the audience snapshots with name plates almost as if presenting them as a series of photographs to highlight the key aspects of his worlds–a technique he’d established with his second film Rushmore–filmmaker Wes Anderson really perfected the technique as we can certainly see during the opening monologue of the film, The Royal Tenenbaums. Not only does it introduce the Tenenbaum children, their father Royal (Gene Hackman) and devoted mother Etheline (Anjelica Huston), but also neighbor and spiritual Tenenbaum Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) who lives across the street.
Shot on location in Harlem, New York were the property can still be found at 339 Convent Avenue on 144th Street, when it came to filming at the property, Anderson found that the property had been in foreclosure with the current owners planning to remodel the property, which Anderson was able to get them to delay to allow him to film at the property. This in turn proved to be ideal as it provided him with a blank canvas in which to create his distinctive vision.
However, while the film might be set in New York, we never really get any sense of the city playing a part in the story, even though we do get to see snippets of the city through scenes such as Royal taking his grandsons on a jaunt around the city or Chas’s summer house on the fictional Eagle’s Island. The placement of the camera during the meeting between Royal and Pagoda only further reflects how unimportant the city is to Anderson with this scene shot so that you intentionally cannot see the statue of liberty in the background. Instead the Tenenbaum house exists in a fictional New York of Anderson’s own personal creation, which he peppers fake locations throughout while still maintaining enough familiarity through what we do see to still give the audience a sense of location.
The opening of the film centred mainly around introducing the children and also serves as a tour through the house as we get to see inside the rooms of each of the characters, each heavily styled to suit their personal tastes such as Chas’s business centre or Margot’s theatre-themed room with its model sets and wall of her plays. While the child versions of these characters might not get to say much, their rooms still tell us plenty about them, especially tennis prodigy Richie whose disorganised state and mish-mash of hobbies (painting, playing the drums and model cars) especially compared to his siblings really reflects the confused wandering spirit of his character. A fun note though is that the paintings that Richie is shown working on, such as the mural in his room were all provided by Anderson’s brother Eric Chase Anderson, who would also provide the design sketches for the house that would be included as part of the Criterion collection release.
The roof ends the initial tour with Richie using it as a base for his falconry with his pet falcon Mordecai, who would end up being played by three falcons and a hawk. The hawk being a last minute replacement when Anderson went against advice that a falcon would simply disappear at the first sight of a pigeon which of course it did shortly after filming the few close up shots we see of Mordecai. A much more disciplined Hawk was brought in for the flying shots.
It’s almost comical and somewhat comforting that when we return to the house 22 years later to follow these characters as adults, essentially shells of their former selves after “two decades of betrayal, failure and disaster,” that nothing has changed in any of the rooms, almost as if their mother Etheline kept them untouched like miniature shrines to her prodigal children, though it’s more the case that the size of the property meant that there was no reason to ever change any of them. Still somehow Anderson manages to create this timeless quality to the rooms, so that even when we have scenes such as Margot and Richie inside his childhood tent, it feels more strangely hip than some relic of their childhood. This desire to amass and dedicate space to their interests we can however see does not carry over into their adult lives, with the locations we re meet these characters often seeming minimalist and certainly in the case of Margot almost squalid like perhaps to represent the current mental states of their residents.
Outside of the rooms of the three Tenenbaum children, the rest of the house is nonetheless intricately designed with Etheline’s study being equally crammed with the bookcase-lined walls and various trophies and trinkets from her archaeological digs.
The rest of the house follows suit almost as if designed to make the most of every available space as it falls somewhere in that little seen grey space between being cluttered and designed with an OCD precision as for as much detail is crammed into the rooms everything still seemingly has its place as perfectly highlighted by the games cupboard that Royal uses for his move private meetings during this impromptu reunion.
Much like the film itself, the house has got so many hidden details that it rewards repeated viewings to realise that it’s a lot more to it than quirky rooms and Dalmatian mice and much like with Eli it really does make us wish were a Tenenbaum, too.