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The Art of Emotion in ‘Fun Home’ and ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’

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Emotional poignancy appears to be getting more and more difficult for storytellers to achieve. Stifled by the rigid layer of cynicism in the minds of audiences it becomes a challenge strike a deep chord, particularly in stories with heart and soul. Many have turned to subtlety and an underlying cynicism of their own to confront this issue. Matching the jaded wavelength of the audience has been an effective way of disguising emotion and slipping powerful themes under the radar. Writers use dry narration to avoid being overly melodramatic or filling their work with cues telling readers exactly how to emotionally respond in situations. Filmmakers shy away from enforcing a particular emotional message, keeping ideology undefined and preventing their film from becoming “too preachy.” Alison Bechdel’s comic book, Fun Home, and Wes Anderson’s film, The Royal Tenenbaums, are two stories that not only use subtlety to effectively convey emotion, but also adopt additional creative ways of penetrating barriers of cynicism. The stories are similar in the way they extract the emotion from the source and spread it to other areas. Feeling takes on different forms as it buries itself in the atmosphere and transforms into something more aesthetically appealing.


Fun Home is an autobiographical exploration of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s relationship with her father. In order to manipulate the reader’s emotional response she alters the prism through which the story is told. Each comic book panel is a scientific dissection of an event, setting or verbal exchange in Bechdel’s past that held a deep emotional significance for her. The comic book format serves this idea effectively because the panels are essentially still images. They are frozen segments in time waiting to be meticulously analyzed. Bechdel utilizes this to take her analysis and introspection overtly deeper than most stories. She directly explores the emotional core of her relationship with her father by using descriptive visual indicators such as labels and maps and she also uses precise complex writing in her narration to uproot her feelings and bring them to the surface. However, she still finds a way to disguise the emotion being displayed which keeps it at bay and prevents it from drowning the reader. Sterilization is a key element in this process. The narration used, while sophisticated, is not very vibrant and the color pallet in the comic is a faded blue-grey as opposed to a mix of rich tones. Both of these style choices signify sterility and drabness. This results in a distancing effect on the part of the writer and it requires the reader to bring out their own feelings and make up the emotional ground.

Bechdel’s next step in disguising the emotion is in the way she intentionally misaligns her written storytelling with her visual storytelling. The narration on the borders of the panels is quite lengthy but the  non-narrative words on the page are sparse and the actual dialog spoken by the characters within a frame is succinct. The facial expressions of the characters are stolid despite the sensitive qualities they possess. They essentially compensate for the volume of thematic analysis and emotion in the narration by showing very little awareness of it in their visual rendering. So while the narration is clear, the characters’ visual behavior is opaque. This creates a type of whimsical dissonance which is the source of much of the story’s humor. The tone becomes slightly sardonic and the story gains life though satire and amusement. But the underlying sarcasm doesn’t exactly detract from the emotion; it simply makes the emotion more appetizing.

Because Fun Home is an autobiography, Bechdel’s stylistic choices provide insight on a meta-level in regards to emotion. Not only does it explain how she handles delivering emotion to the reader but it hints at how she herself deals with emotion and truth. In the story she shares a comparable process of disguising reality when writing a journal entry – “False humility, overwrought penmanship, and self disgust began to cloud my testimony…until, in this momentous entry, the truth is barely perceptible behind a hedge of qualifiers, encryption and stray punctuation.” – In similar fashion, with Fun Home, she translates her emotional issues and eccentricities into decorations but she also uses it as an anesthetic to alleviate the pain of emotional truth, making it easier to confront.


Writer and director Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums, is a part drama, part comedy that tells the story of three siblings who fail as adults to live up to the promise they once showed as children and struggle to salvage a relationship with their good-for-nothing father before his death. The film follows a similar process to Fun Home, artfully displacing and disguising its emotional core. Visually, The Royal Tenenbaums shares Fun Home’s ostensibly innocent design. The family house is the prominent setting and it serves its emotional purpose passively in both stories. Shots of the interiors are carefully composed, showcasing fully furnished, impeccably polished rooms decorated with a Victorian era motif. Descriptive labels are also included mainly as a flourish of quirky excess. There is a visual juxtaposition of innocence with sophistication that evokes both the emotional purity of youth and the murk of complex adult feelings simultaneously.

In addition to the similarities in design, Fun Home and The Royal Tenenbaums are also connected on thematic levels. Both stories deal with suicide and secret, inappropriate love affairs which challenge social constructs. More importantly though, both stories are explorations of dysfunctional families stemming from issues with the father. The death of Alison Bechdel’s father, Bruce Allen Bechdel, is what prompts Alison to reflect on the full impact of her relationship with him in Fun Home. Likewise, it is the character of Royal O’Reilly Tenenbaum, father of the Tenenbaum siblings, who’s claim of sudden mortal peril triggers an impromptu family reunion as he attempts to make up for lost time.

It is interesting to note that Fun Home seems almost antithetical to The Royal Tenenbaums in it’s deconstruction of the inadequate father. In Fun Home, the encompassing world seems to be a projection of the father. He fills the atmosphere with his gloom and despair and it suffocates the rest of the family.  In The Royal Tenenbaums the world is a projection of the children. It is their burgeoning brilliance that radiates and outshines the failures of their father. It is a world in which the father does not fit and and he acts as an emotionally destabilizing presence. Once again, in both stories, the family house becomes a the primary canvas on which this idea is expressed. And so in Fun Home it is the father who is chief house decorator. In The Royal Tenenbaums it is the children. This is possibly why the color pallet in Fun Home is a faded blue, signifying depression while, in The Royal Tenenbaums, it is bold and vibrant signifying youthful ambition.

The lack of expressiveness is perhaps the noticeable similarity between Fun Home and The Royal Tenenbaums. Limited facial expression is a common trait in many of Wes Anderson’s characters. They demonstrate very little physical range of emotion, much like the characters in Bechdel’s Fun Home. As well, a similar tone of humor is brought to the surface by this. But it also automatically bestows the characters with an enigmatic quality. Their inscrutability makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what they might be thinking in a given moment and so audience attention is more actively involved in making that determination for themselves. At the same time the characters’ stoicism seems to compensate for the rich emotional texture around them. It is as if they are vessels and the emotion has been siphoned out of them and set free, beautified and recognizable as art to the naked eye. What then remains on the faces of these characters is a consistently sullen look, activated by the residue of sadness lingering in the empty spaces of their hearts.


The Royal Tenenbaums – Prologue

The prologue in The Royal Tenenbaums is the section of the film that most closely resembles Fun Home. This is mainly because it has an abundance of voice over narration and descriptive labels. Additionally, each sequence is a short exchange of dialog that works in the same way a comic book panel might.


The Royal Tenenbaums – Needle in the Hay

Unlike Fun Home, The Royal Tenenbaums has the luxury of music. Director Wes Anderson uses this device to make the emotion more abstract and surreal compared to what could be accomplished solely with narration. In this haunting scene, Richie Tenenbaum, played by Luke Wilson, attempts suicide after making a disappointing discovery about his sister. His face remains expressionless but the atmosphere is drenched with his grief and despair.



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January 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm

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  1. Reblogged this on David Ononye.


    January 7, 2014 at 8:02 pm

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