Sunday, January 31, 2010

Revolutionary Road: Spoilers included

I watched Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, yesterday. Be warned, spoilers below.

A woman and a man meet at a party; they both have a spark of creativity and the urge to express the greatness in themselves, to dare to be something different. But they get married, have children, and a few years later wake up inside the nightmare of mediocrity that was the US suburbs in the 1950s. The movie conveys the dreariness of giving up your dreams to live in the suburbs because you accidentally got pregnant too soon after marriage. The drudgery of housework on one hand and a mid-level cubical job on the other. Taking out your frustrations on your spouse to avoid acknowledging your betrayal of your own dreams.

The wife plans their escape: they'll sell the house and move to Paris, where she can support them working as a US government secretary in the relief/rebuilding effort. He can discover himself: study philosophy, think, figure it out. The kids will be fine--Europeans raise kids too! She talks him into it and for a brief summer they take steps to change their lives: tell all the friends, put the house up for sale, begin packing.

But she gets pregnant (with a third child), which would make it all impossible. She wants to abort the pregnancy, even gets the instructions and apparatus to do it at home, but when he discovers the means (tucked away in a linen closet) he won't let her--won't agree to it, tells her to give up the dream, that it was a foolish, immature fantasy after all. Work has just offered him a raise and promotion; he'd miss his affair with a secretary there; all their friends and family have ridiculed them for aspiring to be pink monkeys instead of brown ones. In a bitter, desperate, tawdry scene she, too, commits adultery.

And then she performs the abortion anyway. It's past the "safe" 12-week deadline and she bleeds out and dies. He sold out and she gave up.

The acting was excellent, the sets and costumes good. But the story! I'm stunned by how bad it was, how it ignored every bit of analysis and information published in the last 60 years about what life was like in the post-war boom of the 1950s; I'm struck by the pristine naivety of the presentation of these two lives, as if they were extraordinary. I'm frustrated because it ignored the structural social issues that made these two people so desperate.

It was like the backstory for any feminist movie, without ever referencing anything feminist.

Instead it was a purely personal movie, as if these two were just misfits and it was their own fault. Everybody else seemed to be happy. Caving in was rewarded with the good life, in a best-of-both worlds sense: the widower moved into the City (New York City), spent more time with his kids, and yet had a job that paid him enough to do that. And who paid for this? The woman who was wife and mother and more, whose choice field was so constrained by circumstance and the decisions of her husband that the only way out she could find was the way into death. Her self-sacrifice was ultimate: her dreams, her goals, her health, her happiness, and even her life, all burnt into a pleasing odor on the altar of society's order, to keep chaos at bay.

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