One of my fellow critics at The Atlantic, in the course of arguing that women in indie movies are boring, dissed both Mirabelle Buttersfield of Shopgirl and Margot Tenenbaum. I did not let the insults stand:
Maybe Greenwood should have looked closer. Respecting the rich mysteriousness of a woman’s inner life doesn’t mean she doesn’t have one—and some of the women Greenwood calls out as boring are deeply sympathetic, brave characters, even if the people around them on-screen don’t always see them for who they are. And those people often get punished for underestimating these heroines, or assuming they are less complex and fully human than they are…
Margot, like her siblings, is stuck, trapped by a false preadolescent myth of greatness. “You used to be a genius,” her adoptive father Royal tells her at some point. “No, I didn’t,” she tells him. “Anyway, that’s what they used to say,” he moderates.
She’s not the only person who suffers the consequences of the gap between who she actually is and who the world perceives her to be. Margot’s husband (Bill Murray) and her brother Richie (Luke Wilson), who has loved her secretly for years, are both devastated when a private detective tells them that she has had an expansive and varied sexual life that neither one of them had any idea about, and that varies wildly with their ideas of her as a faithful wife, and an object of artistic purity (Richie has painted dozens of portraits of her since they were children). For her husband, the result is abject humiliation. For Richie, it’s worse—in one of the movie’s most beautifully-shot, emotionally devastating sequences, he shaves his head and beard, faces his agonized countenance in the mirror, and slits his wrists.
More to the point, Shopgirl and The Royal Tenenbaums are both movies that directly punish men for treating women as if they’re just blank screens their fantasies can be projected onto. Richie Tenenbaum and Ray Porter are audience proxies, and they pay terrible prices for refusing to understand the women they think they want.