On Sympathetic Men and Frigid Women: Relationship Dysfunction in Wes Anderson's Filmography


“If what I think is happening, is happening … it better not be.”

These legendary words from Mrs. Fox to her husband, in 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox, encapsulate the relationship dynamic in most Wes Anderson films. The wives are the wise, albeit jaded arbiters of their partners’ foolishness, when they are not the outright victims of their nonsense. And this makes sense: Anderson, after all, has built his entire filmography on the running metaphor of damaged men, and the women who hold them together. While it results in hilarious, heartwarming moments, it is not always meant to be: in some cases, the men are truly toxic while their lovers wind up cracking under the pressure of keeping them afloat. 

Why, then, despite the fact that they are supposed to be the focal point of his criticism, are the men of Wes Anderson’s movies somehow portrayed more sympathetically — or less flawed — than the women who surround them?

I acknowledge that I might be reading this wrong. After all, the annual Bad Dads exposition centers on Anderson’s fixation with dysfunctional fatherhood, and many of his films have the commonality of exposing the effect these men have on their families. But underneath this, I also sometimes hear an apologist tone, a suggestion that these men are not the most awful people in the world, nor are they the monsters their actions would make of them. 

Every single year, like a pilgrimage, I rewatch these films. They rhyme with home, with exquisite attention to detail and unapologetic dedication to atmosphere; they have gotten me through the worst, and through the best. They are, simply put, my favorite films. But last year was different because of a random set of circumstances: one thing leading to another, I essentially had to skip the ritual. This time around, thus, was especially exciting, as my marathon was sorely overdue.

Interestingly, while my adoration for the films did not fade, something else latched onto my sense of wonder. A sense of pause. It was like seeing a parent again, after much time had passed, with brand new eyes; it was like seeing, for the very first time, the human being underneath the myth you had constructed around their persona as a child. 

Perhaps it’s because in the last two years, much has changed. Perhaps it’s because toxic masculinity has reared its ugly, ugly head. Perhaps it’s because I’ve personally been wounded by narcissists and emotionally abusive people. Perhaps it’s because #MeToo has reaffirmed and validated my intolerance for the vainglorious. Perhaps it's all of the above. 

All I know for sure is that while I don’t love them any less, my favorite films have left me slightly more at odds than they usually do. 

In Rushmore (1998), teenager Max Fischer and Herman Blume literally tear each other apart in an intense, and increasingly volatile rivalry over who loves Rosemary Cross (a teacher at Max’ school) more. It isn’t even an issue whether she likes them back. In fact, it is made clear that their affection is not reciprocated: with Max, because it is obviously inappropriate, and with Herman — although they do briefly date — because she is still struggling with the death of her husband. The film becomes an endearing study on how our emotional issues end up finding an outlet in delusional love and self-destructive behavior. Eventually, both Max and Herman, upon recognizing their trespasses, form a close bond, and move on with their lives. But what trespasses indeed: although neither claim to be “nice guys”, their entitlement is painfully apparent. Throughout the film, they take turns stalking her, pressuring her into returning their advances, emotionally manipulating her, while never once taking in account her refusal. Her grief is preyed upon by both, as is her niceness: she is, for them, an ideal, more than an actual person with layers of complexity.

Rosemary is not a Mary-Sue, nor a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and this is why ultimately, the film succeeds. She is not without personality, nor without agency. Even through Max’ warped, enraptured gaze, she is lovable. Ultimately, she’s just a pawn caught in the middle of two people’s neuroses, but you get the sense that if this were her movie, it would be much less indulgent concerning their antics. I never once got the impression that Anderson was condoning their behavior: but having said that, why is it that they are more appealing, at the end of the film, than Rosemary who is almost wistful and apologetic about the way things turned out?

The film becomes an endearing study on how our emotional issues end up finding an outlet in delusional love and self-destructive behavior.

The Royal Tenembaums (2001): where to start? There is parallel relational chaos, between Royal Tenembaum and his family, and between Margot Tenembaum and all the men in her life. First, the latter.

Margot is indeed a complicated woman, whose emotional unavailability is highlighted from the second we meet her. Additionally, her storied sexual history not only upsets her already heartbroken husband Raleigh St. Clair and distresses her lover Eli Cash (although his relationship with her constitutes one of her affairs): it drives her brother Richie Tenembaum to attempting suicide, in one of the most harrowing scenes of the film. Margot’s anguish, although easily dismissible, is rooted on very palpable grounds: her father is an asshole, she was brought up in eccentric ways, her writing career has wilted, and she might be struggling with latent issues about being adopted. She states, rather clearly, that she is depressed, and it is evident that her general composure might actually be listless apathy. And yet, we end up caring much more for Eli Cash’s drug fueled antics, for Richie Tenembaum’s emotional meltdown and for Royal Tenembaum’s fascinating downward spiral, than we ever do for Margot.

And speaking of Royal: the man is an absolute menace. He is a terrible friend, a deadbeat father, and an even worse husband. He treats the world with absolute savagery. Throughout the film, he betrays, lies, cheats; he rejects his family, but threatens anyone who might want to get close to them; he is neglectful, casually cruel, hilariously selfish; he has no respect for boundaries or for personal space; he doesn’t care about feelings or past grudges. But worst of all is how Royal treats his wife, from whom he has been separated for over twenty years: she is a sidewalk he takes pleasure in spitting on. Not only does he actively sabotage Etheline’s budding romance with her sweet co-worker Henry, he lies and tells her that he has terminal cancer, so that she will feel sorry for him and let him move back home. 

Any one of the above would have been liable for a very conclusive breakup, at best: at worse, a restraining order. In the end though, Royal Tenembaum remains the celebrated core of Wes Anderson’s glorious film about complicated men who take on responsibilities (fatherhood, marriage) when they are not ready for them; and Etheline is the hapless waif who gently beckons, once again, under his formidable presence. Of all Wes Anderson’s most callous characters, Royal is probably the most sociopathic, but hate as I might to admit this: he is a delight to watch.

The Life Aquatic (2004) is another obvious example of this tendency: while Owen Wilson’s Ned Plimpton is a sweet and gentle man, Steve Zissou is causally homophobic, irritatingly hardheaded, and incredibly petty. If anything, Jeff Goldblum’s Alistair Hennessey is a hilarious foil for him, a refreshingly tacky alpha-male for whom everything is effortless. 

Even when you could justify her behavior (married to an irresponsible man, surrounded by nervous wrecks), she is not meant to be understood, only admired from afar.

And then you have the women. First, Steve’s separated wife Eleanor Zissou, Anjelica Huston at her most chilling best. Everything about her suggests frostiness, from her detached affect, to her piercing eyes, to the cigarette perpetually balanced between her fingers; and even when you could justify her behavior (married to an irresponsible man, surrounded by nervous wrecks), she is not meant to be understood, only admired from afar. She is an ice queen, as desirable as she appears soulless. At her polar opposite is Jane, played by Cate Blanchett with manic intensity. She seems to constantly border on a nervous breakdown, with her fierce devotion to her craft (she is a reporter) and her jitters concerning her pregnancy. Ned Plimpton and his father Steve begin an unhealthy obsession with her, echoing the rivalry exhibited in Rushmore (and better done there, in my opinion). Even with the dedicated energy she brings, Blanchett stands no chance: Jane is nothing more than a blank slate upon which both men’s anxieties write themselves, and ultimately, it is clear that this is not her movie. 

The Darjeeling limited (2007) is interesting, because the father figure is already dead when the film starts. But that doesn’t meant that:

a- his presence is not felt throughout,

b- his sons don’t carry some interesting contradictions of their own,

c- the women in this film don’t follow the same templates.

In the prologue to the film, Hotel Chevalier, we meet Jason Schwartzman’s Jack Whitman and his girlfriend (ex-girlfriend? wife? lover? it is unclear at that point in time), and witness a tense, intricate relationship where evident love is laced with deep heartbreak. Later, in the film, we follow him and his two older brothers Peter and Francis as they road-trip to the Himalayas in search of their mother. She has abandoned them many times throughout their lives and during times of need, most notably a year earlier when she did not attend their father’s funeral. And while the film makes a great case for the three men’s respective issues — Peter is deeply depressed, and struggling with the notion of soon-to-be fatherhood; Francis’ vivacious exterior hides a troubled nature which has led to a suicide attempt; Jack is conflicted, dealing with heartbreak and a budding infatuation for a beautiful girl, Rita — they are definitely not the “villains” in this story.

Unlike in other Wes Anderson films, the trio in Darjeeling is not necessarily meant to be a whimsical joke: they are sad and troubled men whom you want to comfort, and in this narrative, the women in their lives are either unattainable (Rita), difficult (Jack’s unnamed lover), or unreliable (the boys’ mother, Patricia). Despite the Whitman boys’ flaws, of which there are many, the women’s flaws are greater: and this is what makes them far more unlikeable.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) is, funnily enough, what inspired this essay. It is a hilariously sweet, hilariously poignant depiction of a flawed marriage. That “if what I think is happening” scene, in a nutshell, is the undercurrent of many Anderson films, where the men are often adorable, and the women can be Negative Nancies who just don’t get the joke. Through George Clooney’s unforgettable performance, Mr. Fox is incredibly charismatic: but he is also a prideful husband and an irresponsible father, whose impulsions often get him and his family in trouble. His son feels neglected and his wife is increasingly frustrated by his carelessness: and this is ultimately tragic, because it’s clear that Mr. Fox cares. He just has very misguided ways of showing it.

This is the feeling that lingers, long after the film is over: we forgive him for his trespasses, because everyone else has. Even the title suggests that his arc is a redemptive one: he might be a terrible person sometimes, but he is still absolutely fantastic. 

I could go on dissecting the many nuances in the other Wes Anderson films I haven’t touched upon, and I would find the same tendencies. It’s truly fascinating. Confronted with all this, I hesitate to make a hypotheses, because there are many. Going back to what I had initially suggested:

Theory 1: I am reading this wrong, and Anderson is doing this on purpose. Maybe his way of getting back at these terrible fathers, sons and brothers is to give them so little accountability and insight that it enrages us, the audience: and as a result, he knows we could never fully love them. His films, after all, carry an edge of surrealism (that is more or less pronounced, depending on the film). They distort reality in ways we can poke fun at, if we’re feeling generous. It’s obvious that we wouldn’t accept this type of behavior in our lives.

Theory 2: Anderson is unconsciously playing into the age-old trope wherein men are lovable (even when they are not) and deserve our forgiveness, while women are either hysterical, or stuck-up assholes whose inscrutability/inflexibility is symptomatic of their inherent cruelty. At a concentrated level, this is the dynamic that has made shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons + countless other sitcoms over the decades so successful. 

Theory 3: Anderson’s razor-sharp ability to portray subtle human sentiments falters when it comes to women, because he is slightly out of touch with them, he understands them less, and/or he has been too focused on giving men a more nuanced voice.

It could be all of the above, it could be one of them or both, or we could look at this on a case-by-case basis. I’m not sure it matters, however, in the grand scope of things.

What has made this filmmaker so iconic is his ability to tell very specific stories, while giving off an impression of universality. Even when I take the above critique into consideration, I cannot ignore the fact that Anderson has managed the impossible: namely make indie movies that do not completely pigeonhole women into insulting stereotypes like the aforementioned Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Cool Girl the Sassy Black Woman etc.

Maybe his treatment of men and women is his way of exorcising his personal trauma, or how he makes sense of what he has seen, as far as relationships go.

Above all, Anderson’s films are more than stories: they are an homage to aesthetics, to style, to movements. He is a film lover, who is as enigmatic as he is candid about those who have come before him. Sometimes, I feel like his films are more for himself than they are for us, and in that case, maybe his treatment of men and women is his way of exorcising his personal trauma, or how he makes sense of what he has seen, as far as relationships go.

Considering that he is not the most offensive and/or problematic man who has ever written about women (Tarantino? Scorsese?), I consider giving him the same pass the frustrating men in his films get. But while highly enigmatic, his movies are not untouchable: and this lightbulb moment will certainly make me take a sharper look at them, when I eventually watch them again next year. 

After all, what is the point of loving your favorites if you cannot criticize them honestly, from time to time?