Film: Carnage (2011)

December 15, 2011 | By

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Film: Excellent/ DVD Transfer:  n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Black Comedy / Drama / Play

Synopsis: Civility disintegrates as two sets of parents attempt to reconcile a violent encounter between their respective sons.

Special Features: n/a




Although he remains better known for his horror and supernatural thrillers (such as the classic Rosemary’s Baby, and the creative dud The Ninth Gate), Carnage is a reminder of how well Roman Polanski understands fractured human relationships, and the fine stages where characters begin to psychologically splinter after repressed conflicts are triggered and percolate to the surface in all of their ugly discord.

Before his horror output, Polanski was already exploring imbalanced relationships in his early Polish films during the sixties (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cul-de-sac), and he’s generally maintained an interest in realistically flawed subjects regardless of time period, genre, or literary source.

In choosing Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage,” Polanski doesn’t just return to the fertile ground of his prior character studies but finds a venue to indulge in black comedy. Reza’s play (which Polanski co-adapted for this short but tight film) essentially brings together parents of two kids recently involved in a bloody fracas. Who called the first insult and whether getting smacked in the mouth was justified is irrelevant to Reza’s play: her drama draws from the marital nastiness that’s brought out when a civil meeting between adults literally explodes into a vomitous splattering of rage.

Alexandre Desplat’s cheery music for the NYC waterfront park prologue / Main Title music (also recapped again in the epilogue / End Credits) establishes a false state of civility and functions as bitter counterpoint as the son of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) is seen getting gashed in the face with a stick by Zack, the ‘maniac son’ of Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz).

The drama formally begins in the next scene, where Penelope corrects her draft legal statement for the Cowans in her apartment, changing the phrase ‘armed with a stick’ to less inflammatory quasi-legal verbiage, and though both sides feign satisfaction before they start to separate at the front door, one can see from Penelope’s visage that she harbors deep upset in having to fake civility for a couple she regards as utterly phony.

That’s essentially the beginning of Carnage, after which the characters politely dance in and out of the Longstreets’ apartment and verbally around issues over apple & pear cobbler, drinking coffee, and unnervingly reacting to little quips each person lets loose as they’re unable to maintain phony politesse. When Nancy massively upchucks onto Penelope’s rare coffee table books, the characters start to express their real thoughts, including petty marital issues, and Reza’s prose nicely volleys between legally neutral insults to frank profanity, and the film becomes a dance between varying levels of marital discord.

Happily, it doesn’t turn into a free-for-all, because each uptight character’s been trained to maintain decorum; they may bitch about issues openly, but there are no fisticuffs. Childish behaviour is scolded, rash actions cause bafflement, and social prejudices are sometimes flip-flopped and flattened, as occurs when Alan’s contempt for banal everyman Michael is softened when he realizes the sweater-clad ‘general salesman’ hides an appreciation of 18 year old single malt booze and various Cuban cigars – goodies Alan’s never discovered on his very own.

If Polanski had directed a version of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” he would’ve made sure there was a balanced exchange of insults, with no clear winner in the final act, but there are little battles with little payoffs cherished by winning parties, such as Alan’s incessant cell phone calls being silenced by Nancy’s brilliant little act of defiance.

Reza’s play doesn’t end on a decisive note because everyone’s too hammered and puke-scented to suddenly clean up and leave without any second thoughts. Polanski leaves them in their messy state, and in the epilogue we return to the kids who’ve now made up, and seem collegial in their new clique, although whether they arrived at this position themselves or with their parents’ aide remains moot; the kids seem to have moved forward without prehudice, while one suspects the parents are still reeking from their recent bilious exchange.

The quartet of actors is uniformly strong, as each gets sufficient opportunities to shine, but the real joy is watching the couples lose their cool in small spurts withhold full physical outrage: while the women reach a higher plain of vitriol, the men seem to give in to the madness, admit to their social improprieties but not care an ounce what anyone thinks. Actress Foster frequently turns red as her character struggles for the right and just words which Alan easily deflects with disinterest, and actor Reilly relishes Michael’s eventually sense of calm after he’s come clean about his right wing leanings, and bonds with Alan on a purely male level while Nancy deals with a renewed wave of nausea and neon bile.

Polanski’s assured direction allows the actors have fun with Reza’s snappy dialogue and behavioral nuances, all of which are contrasted by Dean Tavoularis’ luxurious production design of modish furniture, pretentious art books, and fragile décor. Because of Polanski’s ongoing legal issues with the U.S., Carnage was filmed in France, but second unit work in NYC and background plates of cityscapes maintain fidelity to the play’s American location.

Reza’s other filmed works include Chicas (2010), adapted from her play “Une piece espagnole” and directed by Reza, with Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner co-starring; Dreimal Leben (2001)), a German TV adaptation of her play “Troi versions de la vie”; Lulu Kreutz’ Picnic (2000), based on her play “Le pique-nique de Lulu Kreutz”; and several TV versions of Art (1998).



© 2011 Mark R. Hasan


External References:

IMDB Jasmina Reza WikiOfficial Film WebsiteComposer Filmography


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