She’s not so much a secret style icon, as my blueprint for a life. When I grow up, I want to be Etheline Tenenbaum.
You can’t discourage me by suggesting she isn’t real. I know there’s a New York out there where it is always autumn, turning to winter; where baroque townhouses sit in faded splendor in wide silent avenues; and everybody is a forgotten prodigy, quietly mulling over their inconsequentiality and having meandering, cryptic conversations with their family.
The entire script of The Royal Tenenbaums is a joy – each exchange full of oddness and humour (“Did you say you were on mescaline?” “I did, yes. Very much so”). Etheline is my favourite, though, and her understated dialogue is carried off with élan by Anjelica Huston. She reigns over her raggedy brood with a quiet but firm exactitude. As each of her adult children return home – flattened and defeated, by depression, bereavement, failure – she takes them all in, with a long look and a raised eyebrow. Even her ex-husband Royal, the devilish, deceitful old man causing havoc and getting everyone riled up – returns in his hour of need (lying his way back in to the family with a tall tale about being on death’s door). Her home is still the heart of all their lives. Although it seems, most obviously, a love-letter to extended youth and the fantasy of eternal return to the family home, the film could also be an ode to matriarchy: a tribute to an enduring, steely-calm and beloved presence at the centre of everything.
My favourite Etheline moment is her queenly reaction on discovering that her daughter has a secret smoking habit. In the middle of a crisis, in a hospital waiting room, a rattled Margo lights up a cigarette next to her mother.
“How long have you been a smoker?” Etheline turns to her, surprised.
“Well I think you should quit.”
Etheline has a whole other life, all to herself, which we sometimes catch a glimpse of – the well attended bridge night she holds in the ballroom; her career as an archeologist, and of course, her many suitors: