Thursday, 9 February 2012


2011. Dir: Roman Polanski. Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly and Elvis Polanski. ●●●○○

I think I may have nailed my colours a little too ostensibly on the mast. I generally try to list five performances at the start of the post, in this case choosing the first four was a piece of cake - they're the only speaking parts - but the next is a decision between the two boys, the sons of the warring couples, the spark that ignites the breakdown of the veneer of civilisation. Of course the real decision was based on the credits alone but it does give the impression I sided with the Cowans. Ridiculous I know, how could you side with any of the warped frightful animals at play in Roman Polanski's Carnage.

The film opens in Brooklyn Bridge Park, presumably filmed by a second unit director rather begging the question why Polanski didn't just film it in Paris in the French Yasmina Reza original used, where two adolescents play innocently until all of a sudden one is alone, victimised and in a sudden burst of anger he swings the tree branch he carries and...

Cut to:

Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as Mr. & Mrs. Longstreet, parents of the injured party preparing a statement concerning the incident for Momma and Poppa Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz). They're in an apartment we won't leave until the end credits. They haggle, reasonably, over the wording. Armed with vs. carrying. Exchange pleasantries then the Cowan's make to leave, yet somehow they don't, somehow the two couples are trapped in a cycle of progressive discussion, liberal one-upmanship and intense bickering as the façade of bourgeois respectability is ripped away as the animal instincts and repressed tensions burst forth in a stunning display of aggressive inhumanity.

It goes without saying that Reza wasn't writing a plot based drama, the aim is to hold up a mirror to the hypocritical chianti-quaffing theatregoing literati, to remind us (and I include myself in the intellectual class that like to imagine we're above the type of behaviour exhibited on Jeremy Kyle) that we are just naked apes, a few generations on from our cave dwelling ancestors, able to slip back into that constant battle for survival and alpha status within the group.

In itself this is interesting and the shifting perspectives and loyalties between the couples as their individual moral standards are attacked and the deeper fundamental beliefs exposed and challenged. Each of the quartet is ultimately struggling with middle-class guilt and an inability to connect with their kids, the Generation X knowing both the disciplinarian parental style and the little adult hippie approach has failed but unable to find a third way. At the same time little nuggets of information, be it Reilly's dislike of hamsters, Waltz's corporate client, Foster's concept of justice or Winslet's relativism are carried through the piece, dropped quietly then lifted back into the conversation in bitter and unexpected ways.

The performances are a mixed bag, surprising for such a small prestige cast list. The stand out is Christoph Waltz's sly, self-aware and urbane lawyer, the first to highlight the hypocrisies around the room and to admit his own failings. At the other end of the scale is Jodie Foster, shrill and excitable she's playing to the back of the stalls. I also thought only John C. Reilly handled the later scenes effectively - whilst his co-stars were slurring and staggering for twenty minutes embarrassingly over-egging the drunkeness he was the only one with the common sense to remember that we try to not look drunk when drunk and hold it back.

Some reviews have picked on the staginess of the film, something almost inevitable when adapting a one-act single location play, and whilst it did reek of it's origins I don't count that as a failing. Polanski's own Death and the Maiden (1994) and Mike Nichol's 1966 masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe were both stage plays with small casts that felt restricted, but the power of the theme or performances breaks that boundary. Here it's essential that the characters are trapped in the surroundings and luckily the setting makes us feel trapped too.

I would also like to praise the look of the film, from Milena Canonero's character specific costuming to Franckie Diago's set decoration, actually this felt perfect, everything from the art tablebooks to the ethic decor oozing a sense of intellectual entitlement. I've been to houses like these, neither the crumbling monasteries of academia or the child friendly homes of suburbia (I only remember one photo of the family and nothing in the house looked like the kids would be involved), they exist in order to be shown off at dinner parties and gatherings of like minded individuals. Equally Pawel Edelman's cinematography both accentuated the space whilst slowly disintegrating in form and function with the breakdown of the characters.

I also like the end shot, I won't spoil it but there's a satisfying return to playground politics that renders the whole breakdown of society mute.

Ultimately though this is all just an intellectual exercise, it's a piece of performance art, as such it works but dramatically it goes nowhere. Yes vomit is expelled, tears are spilt, whisky is downed and Kate Winslet vandalises a perfectly good arrangement of tulips screeching "Why are we still in this house?" but nothing really happens and the message is so obvious that there's little to stick around for. Earlier I invoked the parallels with Virginia Woolfe, where that stagey talky violence is a horrendous tragedy hiding behind a sexual farce whereas here we have a black comedy pretending to be serious. Waltz professes a belief in the God of Carnage, I have a belief in Melpomeme the Muse of tragedy and she wasn't worshipped anywhere near enough in this utterly missable hour and a half of vitriol.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

But, is this meant to be a tragedy, though? I get your thoughts, though. As I've said elsewhere the potentially vacuous undertone works for me in a way I think it doesn't for others.

I agree on Reilly working best in the final third, though I think it's Kate's show overall.

Colleen said...

I saw this trailer with Young Adult. It was odd that a bunch of people hissed when it ended. What's up with that? I'm draw to the subject matter and I love all of these actors. Honestly though, I'll probably wait for the DVD. I haven't seen the poster you posted and I found it interesting that both female characters had shots of them screaming but not the dudes. Very interesting. Do you feel this was reflecting the characters of the film or are they trying to portray women as overly emotional?

Alex in Movieland said...

I'm not gonna see it before Oscar season is over... I'll give it a chance at some point, though I'm not too excited.

Runs Like A Gay said...


For me there just seems to be nothing behind what we see. It seems smug in its insistence that there is no hidden message.

Kate didn't really work for me, but I think that's partly because her character had the most erratic through-line.


I'm surprised that people hissed, especially as the trailer does highlight the considerable humour in the screenplay (note I did find the film funny). Maybe, and I hate to bring this up, it's a reaction to Polanski as the director?

You bring up an interesting point about the poster, and whilst the film isn't quite as extreme there is a slight misogynistic feel as the female characters seem far more reactive to the changing dynamics in the group and both also lose their temper in a much more dramatic way then the men.


I wouldn't rush to see it, but it is a fun watch for DVD later in the year. Bearing in mind that it looks like a dreadfully uninvolving summer right now.

Alex in Movieland said...

I saw it and it wasn't so bad. :) went along fast.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Reasonably fast, but then it was short. I'll give you that Alex.