June 01, 2009

Revolutionary Road

From the first reel of Revolutionary Road we know that Frank and April's marriage is in trouble- we see the couple having the kind of fight that only long years of companionship can support. Their dilemma though is wider, as we slowly discover, than a simple marital dispute. They are unhappy with the stuff of their lives. Frank works as a corporate drone- alternating fiddling with the filing and the secretaries. April's life is incredibly exciting- if you find discussing the plants to put up in the drive and the minutiae of suburban gossip and semi-sophisticated snobbery alluring- I and more to the point she don't. They have this idea one night that they might escape and go to Paris- Paris will help April find a job and Frank find a mission in life. Their kids, their money will all be fine- but Paris will rejuvenate their souls. In a sense the film is a story about two people who never read Lucy Kellaway, the FT's management and career's columnist, who argues work is meant to be boring: they want work to be entertaining, they want life to be thrilling. They want their world to be about the moment that Frank walked into fire on the front in the Second World War or that April and Frank first made love- they want excitement.

Neither of them are sure though about what they really want- they haven't decided what their excitement actually lies in. Neither of them has a vocation- save to be interesting- an interest save in fascination. Indeed they meet through a shared amusement and a shared confusion about what is interesting in the world. Paris fades like a dream because April becomes pregnant and Frank gets offered a job- but you get the sense that that is really not an alternative for these two as much as it is a panacea that will turn sour. What the two of them are protesting about is life itself- the endless mundanity of getting up in the morning, washing dishes, waking kids, going to work with uninteresting people and being a mere cog in a machine. Given that they realise in the course of the film the central fact of their lives is that they aren't brilliant- this is the life that they have to look forward to. Or at least it is the life that they have to look forward to in this kind of society and sociological system- the film never develops a political angle and leaves it as implicit that the world of Frank and April will continue for all recorded time (April may get to the office, and that's all that will change).

There is an aspect here of artists telling the rest of us why they are so happy they made the decisions that they made- the condescension of some of the sequences to those of us who do work in offices is palpable and rather unpleasant. Mr. Mendes ought to grow up and realise that adjusting interest rates might bring more human happiness than a film may. But leaving that aside there is a serious point here- work and family have consumed April and Frank, have rendered them husks without interests. Partly this is because they started out as husks- they started out without interests and thoughts of their own. They only knew that they wanted to live but didn't know how- in that sense their lives are vacuums waiting to be filled, and as the mathematician John points out to them at one point, in his role as an idiot savant (a rather tired piece of plot device) they are drifting, passively accepting their roles as suburbanites. Or at least that is what Frank is doing- passively accepting his role within the universe of the corporate man.

April's passivity is of another type. Her passivity is a reluctance to attempt to transcend her situation and a willingness to blame all its faults on others. She never fully seizes control of her life because like alabaster she throws the blame and hence the responsibility and initiative for shaping it on to others. Should something go wrong, she never finds a reason to live in that new reality- she cannot accept what is not perfect. Here in a sense we have the most fundemental reason why neither Frank nor April can fully cope with their lives. The film demonstrates that in earthly terms, Milton's Satan was right

"The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven./ What matter where, if I be still the same".

Bad theology may be good psychology. April setting her heart on the shibboleth of Paris misunderstands that actually her problems lie closer to home- the mind can craft itself an interesting reality, it does not need the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps ultimately these two are locked together because they are locked in a search for the reason that they feel their lives are futile- both of them have decided that futility is now their end and have to work out how to blame each other.

This film is by turns irritating but also tragic. Mr Di Caprio and Miss Winslet are good actors- Mr Mendes can definitely direct. There are problems within it but there are also great strengths- some of the accusations between the couple are distinctly uncomfortable. The physical weight of pregnancy is brought home with a painful immediacy. The temptations they are exposed to are also there. What Mr Mendes and his cast maybe do not realise is that suburbia is not so much a geographical state as a state of mind- in their semi-sophisticated politeness April and Frank would remain trapped even if they did go to Paris in lives whose only frustration is its futility. To escape that requires not merely the humility to realise ones ignorance, but the discipline to avoid the geraniums and do something about it.