Synopsis: Carnage centres on two pairs of parents, one of whose child has hurt the other at a public park, who meet to discuss the matter in a civilised manner. However, as the evening goes on, the parents become increasingly childish, resulting in the evening devolving into chaos.
Polanski's play adaptation uses words as weapons.
In the first scene of Roman Polanski’s acerbic black comedy, based on Yasmina Reza’s Broadway hit God of Carnage, there’s a long wide deep shot of a small group of kids mucking about in Brooklyn Bridge Park. They’re rugged up for the cold weather, and you can’t hear any voices and I couldn’t really make out the faces, but the body language is telling. In the way the kid’s lurch and scatter it’s clear there’s some kind of disagreement amongst the group; a split second later one kid picks up a stick, swings it, and hits another taking him down. As his mates gather round the victim, the stick swinger looks on but keeps his distance.
It turns out that the kids at the centre of this ugly bit of play are 11-year-olds, pals who both attend the same exclusive school. Ethan, who loses two teeth in the affray, is the son of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). She’s a brittle liberal who writes earnest books about starving Africans and has enough pent up hostility to keep Manhattan’s power needs secure for weeks on end; Michael is a successful businessman of domestic products who affects a ‘nice-guy’ persona, but is, in fact, an ugly doofus with a taste for expensive whisky and even more expensive cigars. Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowen (Christoph Waltz, in the movie’s best performance) are the parents of Zach, the stick-wielder.
As the film’s narrative kicks in, in one brilliant cut we find the Cowens in the Longstreet’s apartment and the scene is one of strained politeness as Penelope types up a ‘statement’ on the home PC about the incident in Brooklyn Park – from what we hear it’s an agreement that says that Zach is as guilty as hell and the Cowens are expected to do nothing more than sign off on it.
As Penelope types the document, she reads it aloud (never mind that the others are right there hanging over her like birds of prey – the film abounds with aggressive/predatory imagery). At one point, Alan, a lawyer, objects to the language Penelope uses in the statement: “Armed with a stick?”
The movie at this point in not even ten-minutes old and for these four, it’s all downhill; this reconciliation meeting becomes a verbal bloodbath (it’s not called Carnage for nothing) where resentments rise to the surface like bile in the throat and the Longstreet’s beautifully appointed apartment becomes a psychic battleground of wounded esteem, fragile marriages, clashing personal and social values and one very savage and funny one-liner after another.
It turns out that the four make ideal combatants: Nancy is full of misplaced pride and class prejudice and Alan seems completely indifferent to anyone resembling a human being. (Alan is the character who’s saddled with the film’s most writerly and bogus line about believing in the ‘God of Carnage’ but Waltz is such a terrific player he reads it brilliantly; he says it like it’s a dare, like he’s spoiling for a fight, not some intellectual challenge.)
This is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory. The play, which I have not seen, is often read as a rather fashionable satire on bourgeois manners and the pious posturing of ‘new parenting’ of the generation just touching 50 now, the one that’s supposed to be influenced by self-help manifesto’s and feminism. Certainly Foster’s character sounds like she’s swallowed one New-Age testimonial too many – and the men are set up, a bit too neatly I think, in opposition to the women with their scorn of such things, like finer feelings. Still, I don’t think the film has ended up entirely as a satire on manners on mores (though, I understand it’s close to the play).
What dominates the film is the idea of how helpless we are when the language we use seems no longer in our power; three times the Cowens try to escape the situation, and each time they are drawn back into the battle by a word, or a phrase that pushes an emotional button leading to another round of degrading verbal fisticuffs.
None of this, though, is to suggest that Carnage is profound, but the actors are all fine, the pace is relentless, and the situation is so full of heat and ideas that’s its always riveting and, if nothing else, it’s a model of construction and narrative economy. (The editing was by Herve de Luze.) There’s not one line, cut, move, and situation that is wasted or feels like it’s too much.
Shot by cinematographer Pawel Edelman on a superb set and played out ingeniously in real time and filmed in France (with the location enhanced by some seamless visual effects), Polanski gives the film an extraordinary energy in subtle ways; his technique is breathtakingly precise. For instance, the first half of the film is dominated by long takes, but after a certain point as the relationships fray, the cutting gets faster, the camera gets closer to the faces, the set-ups more complex; the emotional atmosphere ends up rank. The more claustrophobic the characters feel, the funnier it gets.
Polanski pitches the thing just right. It’s stagey but in an attractive way, and always cool, but it’s an emotional style that lets the humour emerge quickly; a more earnest approach would have killed the laughs and the power of the language and its wounding effect. The whole thing reminded of a line from Talk Radio: “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words cause permanent damage.”
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