The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001): “Needle in the Hay” Scene (0:14-2:08 on Youtube)

Posted on March 23, 2011


0:14- 2:08

Richie Tenenbaum’s suicide attempt in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums is an artistically composed scene due to the cinematography, discontinuous editing, melancholic music selection and mise-en-scène. These elements of Anderson’s cinematic language help draw the viewer into the world of despair inhabited by Richie in slightly over two minutes. Meanwhile, the scene displays both his figurative and physical transformations. This scene occurs after Richie discovers some of the many secrets and past lovers of his adopted, married sister Margot whom he’s secretly been in love with all of his life. The scene’s significance lies its tragically honest depiction of hitting rock bottom.

The mood of the scene is established largely with the help of the soundtrack. The use of the song “Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith conveys a hauntingly beautiful desperation which suits this scene perfectly. Lyrics such as, “I’m taking the cure so I can be quiet whenever I want,” are thought to reference suicide. The disturbing and heartfelt nature of this scene was perhaps worsened by Elliott Smith’s own suicide two years later. The viewer becomes fully immersed in the soundtrack due to the lack of foley sounds in the scene. The snipping of the scissors, for example, although consistent with the action onscreen, would have distracted from the song. Thus, by incorporating “Needle in the Hay” as the exclusive source of sound in the scene, rather than just as a background accompaniment, Anderson emphasizes it’s role in setting the tone.

Richie’s physical transformation is also significant due to the uniformity in costume design which Anderson used to create a highly stylized world within the film. Each member of the Tenenbaum family wears the same outfit with few exceptions throughout the entirety of the film. Richie, for example, sports a tennis polo, blazer, headband, wristbands, and sunglasses even after the conclusion of his athletic career, reflecting his very static place and mindset in life. He had been away for a year, living on a boat, harboring his forbidden love for Margot. His decision to cut off all of his hair was rooted in a desire to disassociate himself from that person, but ultimately, it wasn’t enough.

Richie’s position in the center of a medium closeup shot throughout most of the scene commands our focus. This exemplifies the importance of framing the central figure in the composition of a shot. Furthermore, the close-up is key to viewing the jump cuts which show the progression of his haircut. This discontinuous editing calls attention to itself due to the manner in which each cut was spliced together. Anderson didn’t attempt to make the cuts subtle or seamless, but instead made each jump highly noticeable. The tempo of the shots also plays an important role in establishing a rhythm, adding to the artistic value of the scene. Rather than simply allowing the events to unfold in real time, Anderson uses rapid jump cuts to imply ellipses in time and flashbacks to divulge to the viewer what is happening inside Richie’s head as he seeks to end his life.

The subsequent shots over his shoulder in which we see his mirror reflection truly offer point of view shots in which Anderson forces us to look at Richie as he views himself, both literally through the mirror and symbolically by conveying his despair through his staging choices, such as color and lighting. (See film still 1.) The blue tint which persists throughout the entire scene conveys his emotions in a manner which also absorbs the viewer into experiencing his sorrow. Before he begins shaving, he turns on a light above him, which far from lightening the mood, simply calls more attention to his anguished expression. Steam from the hot water can be seen in the background, contributing to the dark, intimate, and eery atmosphere.  Throughout the scene, the straightforward close up shot of Richie’s face stays darkly lit, though to the right of Richie remains a sliver of light streaming in through the window. The light foreshadows hope and the possibility of Richie surviving. The darkness surrounding him coincides with the scene’s depressing tone.

The mirror reflection offers a point of view shot for the viewer.

After shaving only one line on his face, Richie gives up and whispers “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow,” his first and only line in the scene. (See film still 2.) The camera shows a close-up of his hands fingering the razor blade. A jump cut more rapid than the others reveals a fleeting image of Richie before he cut his hair. This represents a cursory reflection on his former self. As he cuts, a series of rapid jump cuts create a montage of flashbacks of his pet falcon Mordechai who flew away and never returned, his childhood with Margot and then her as an adult. Although composed of numerous overlapping images, Anderson accents Margot by showing her repeatedly and for a longer duration in the final shot of the flashback, implying her significance to him. The scene changes to a point of view shot showing Richie looking down at his wrists in the sink after he’s cut them. (See film still 3.) The camera then switches to the other side of the bathroom, acting as more of an observer as we watch Richie sink to the floor.

Still 2: This medium close-up shot of Richie is used consistently to show the misery in his facial expression.

Still 3: This point of view shot of Richie's bleeding wrists emphasizes the meticulous composition Anderson strived for to frame the subject (the hands) amongst his discarded wristbands and hair.

The director manipulates sound using a sudden asynchronous silence when Dudley walks in to the bathroom and discovers Richie’s bleeding and unconscious body  lying on the floor. He opens his mouth as if to scream, but no sound can be heard. Finally, the music resumes as a team of doctors hurriedly wheel him down the hallway of a hospital in a stretcher. The camera angle is also radically altered when Dudley finds Richie. It quickly tilts downward and then around to show a 180 degree view of the body. This is a noticeable transition from the largely straightforward camera angles throughout the majority of the scene which further emphasizes the chaos of the moment.

Ultimately, the creative and carefully though-out camera angles, editing, inescapably bleak mise-en-scène and soundtrack contribute to this beautifully powerful scene, essential to Anderson’s masterpiece.

(W.C. 1,017 words)