Produced and distributed by Dreamworks and BBC Films
Directed by Sam Mendes
Screenplay by Justin Haythe from Richard Yates’ novel
The Lemon Tree
Produced by Eran Riklis Productions and Heimatfilm
Directed by Eran Riklis
Screenplay by Suha Arraf
Distributed by IFC Films
British director Sam Mendes has turned Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road, into a thorough scolding. As he did with American Beauty eight years ago, he chastises his Yankee cousins for their mulish devotion to tradition, especially regarding abortion. As causes go, this seems an awfully belated tilt at a sadly defunct windmill.
(You may want to stop here if you have not seen the film. What follows gives away a good deal of its plot.)
Mendes’ film is another tale of claustrophobic 1950’s America when, as everyone knows, middle-class suburbanites were straitjacketed and lobotomized by a consumerist culture that demanded absolute obedience to its commercial edicts. Once again we’re treated to the horrors of Eisenhower, McCarthy, and the lockstep conformity they demanded of the citizenry from boardroom to bedroom. See all those men emerging from Grand Central Station wearing three-button suits and fedoras? Gives you the shudders, doesn’t it?
There’s just one problem. Yates’ emphasis fell elsewhere. After sketching in a tidy Connecticut suburbia populated with working stiffs employed by large Manhattan-based corporations, he focused on Frank Wheeler, a self-proclaimed nonconformist. Frank loudly chafes at his dreary lot working for Knox Business Machines, Yates’ stand-in for Remington Rand, and proclaims, whenever his superiors are safely out of earshot, his brave refusal to submit to the corporate ethic. All the while, however, he embraces the security it so amply provides. Yates’ novel could be said to illustrate one of William Whyte’s more convincing observations in his 1955 sociological study of middle-class America, The Organization Man, in which he noted that the claim to be a nonconformist “is often a mask for cowardice, and few are more pathetic than those who flaunt outer differences to expiate their inner surrender.” Following Whyte’s line of thought, Yates satirically examined pretension and its discontents. Like grown-up versions of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye (published ten years earlier), Frank and his wife, April, detest phonies, not realizing how phony they are themselves. Mendes, who seems to suffer from an incurable irony deficiency, doesn’t get this at all.
The film begins with a ferocious argument between April (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) following her performance in The Petrified Forest, Robert E. Sherwood’s play about the need to choose your own destiny. Put on by local amateurs in the village’s high-school auditorium, everything that could go wrong has, and April is furious. She had hoped her performance would confirm her sense that she is special. Instead, it forcibly reveals her ordinariness. She’s no Bette Davis. Frank tries to console her as they drive home. He blames it on the other cast members who, he assures her, “all stank,” being nothing but suburban nonentities. But he only succeeds in further infuriating April. So he pulls onto the highway’s shoulder, the better to level with her. Soon they’re outside their Buick screaming at each other as the traffic whizzes by. Finally, April goes too far and mocks Frank’s manhood. In response he proves her right by childishly hammering the car’s roof with his fist. Mendes stages the fight as if it were a showdown between Macbeth and his Lady. On the page, however, it’s a grotesque comedy. Frank’s
arms flapped and fell; then, as the sound and the lights of an approaching car came up behind them, he put one hand in his pocket and assumed a conversational slouch for the sake of appearances.
Ten years earlier, Frank, living in Greenwich Village, fancied himself “a Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man”; now, he oscillates ridiculously between adolescent rage and suburban propriety. The couple prove themselves too purblind to choose their joint destiny. They are wholly creatures of their historical circumstance. The film, however, registers only the couple’s fury and none of their absurdity.
Convinced they are too good for life in a suburb, April and Frank are baffled that their exceptional selves have not been accorded due recognition. Since the fault cannot be with them, they lay the blame on American culture, which Frank accuses of offering only “hopeless emptiness.” On the strength of this doubtful analysis, April decides one night that they must relocate to Paris with their two young children. There she will work at an American embassy while Frank stays at home finding out what he wants to do with his life. After initial doubts, Frank signs on for the adventure, and the next day they are telling everyone they know of their heroic decision. Privately, they laugh at their friends’ astonished reactions, congratulating themselves for defying the status quo. Two months later, however, April finds herself pregnant, probably because of an impromptu coupling on the kitchen counter the very night she and Frank planned their Parisian odyssey. This development plus Frank’s unexpected promotion propels the narrative to its bleak conclusion. Having had second thoughts about their flight to freedom, Frank takes the coming child and his increased salary as reasons enough to scotch Paris. April, however, is not about to abort her plan. She would rather abort her child. Sickened by her cold-blooded determination, Frank threatens to leave her. But she thinks she knows better and goes ahead despite the danger of a self-administered abortion. Needless to say, she manages to kill herself. Mendes makes this sequence seem the tragic result of an insensitive society that refuses to afford women the option of safe, no-fuss abortions. But he has strategically ignored April’s default position regarding offspring. In the novel she had wanted to abort her first child, reasoning it would hamper her and Frank in their quest to find themselves. Frank had dissuaded her with a show of outraged masculinity, only to realize too late that he didn’t want the child either. Yates’ point is obvious. As good Americans, April and Frank subscribe to the myth of self-invention. They object to any restraints on their willfulness, including biology and its consequences. By leaving this out, Mendes makes April seem a victim. Were she living in our far more enlightened moment, she could have rid herself of the child and taken off for Paris where she and Frank would no doubt spend their evenings at Left Bank cafés having Jean-Paul Sartre kinds of discussions about authenticity versus bad faith while an au pair saw to the inconveniences of their two living children.
Yates had something else in mind. “I thought I was writing a novel about abortion,” he said in 1972. The narrative was, he continued,
to be built on a series of abortions, of all kinds—an aborted play, several aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and aborted dreams—all leading up to a real, physical abortion, and a death at the end.
Note that Yates invoked the word abortion in its traditional pejorative sense.
A year later Roe v. Wade changed things, and the word began its steady evolution into today’s usage. Now it’s bandied with equal nonchalance at cocktail parties and in high-school classrooms.
Besides bowdlerizing Yates’ text, perhaps Mendes should have retitled it The Road to a Revolutionary Understanding of Reproductive Rights. This would have satisfied his penchant for righteously didactic fiction.
Anyone interested in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank should see The Lemon Tree. Directed by Israeli Eran Riklis and scripted by Palestinian Suha Arraf, this film tells a simple story that quietly but firmly exposes the profound injustice Israel has inflicted on her Palestinian neighbors and on her own citizens. And it does so without glossing over the Palestinians’ penchant for self-defeating violence and their refusal to bargain sensibly with the Israelis.
Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass of The Visitor) is a Palestinian widow unluckily living on land that borders the new estate of Israel’s recently appointed minister of defense. Tending her lemon grove, she watches in mute amazement as the minister’s magnificent new three-story home receives its finishing touches. By contrast, her one-story house is a ramshackle affair hastily cemented together with discarded materials. Her property has one distinguishing feature: the lemon grove her father bequeathed to her. Her family has been tending it for 60 years, since the founding of the state of Israel.
Salma’s grove is soon declared a security risk. Its trees could easily hide terrorists. The next day, workers put up 12-foot-high metal fences and erect a 30-foot watchtower staffed with Uzi-wielding guards. Still it’s not enough. The Israeli officials inform Sal-ma they must raze her grove. Of course, they’ll compensate her for her loss, even though the government is under no obligation to do so. Their magnanimity is lost on Salma.
Meanwhile, Salma must watch her trees wither. When she climbs the fence to water them, armed soldiers roughly threaten her with arrest. That’s when she decides to act. Although the village layabouts advise against it, she finds a young Palestinian lawyer willing to take up her seemingly hopeless case, and the unequal struggle begins.
The minister (Doron Tavory) seems to hold all the cards. When asked by reporters about his neighbor’s grove, he smiles ruefully. Then, like a latter-day Pontius Pilate, he washes his hands of the issue. It’s the secret service’s decision, and he really cannot go against their judgment. But his wife sympathizes with Salma. She’s also suffered at the hands of her husband’s urbane bullying, having endured his transparent philandering over the years. How, she wonders aloud to a reporter, could mere lemon trees pose so much danger? Soon the minister has a major embarrassment on his hands. Everywhere he goes, including Washington, D.C., reporters ask him about the lemon grove. He tries to laugh it off but to no avail. Salma finds herself granted a hearing at Israel’s supreme court.
By focusing on the relatively minor injustice done to Salma, Riklis is able to convey the dehumanizing effects of his nation’s defense policies on both Palestinians and Israelis alike. As the story progresses, he returns to scenes featuring the ugly cement security wall that snakes through the West Bank. Like the fence around Salma’s grove, it’s a disgrace. While it walls out the Palestinians from free access to their land, it also walls in the Israelis, trapping them in their claustrophobically sterile enclaves. The film’s bleakness is only relieved by the spectacle of the minister being shamed by Israeli public opinion. Perhaps, Riklis implies, there’s a way out of this fatal impasse. Maybe the intransigents on both sides can be shamed into a resolution.