Sunday, April 08, 2012

Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)

Sticks and stones

Roman Polanski's Carnage (2011), his adaptation of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage is, for the most part, a hoot.

The film begins with the camera slowly swooping down on a playground, where a group of youths (led by one Ethan Longstreet) follow a youth (named Zachary Cowan). Words are exchanged, shoving ensues; Polanski holds the shot--we don't have any idea of what they're saying to each other--until Zachary takes the stick he's been swinging and whacks Ethan across the face. As a kind of punctuation Ethan's stunned friends gather around him while Zachary angrily kicks over a nearby bike.

Cut to Zachary's parents Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) talking with Ethan's parents Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) in the Longstreets' apartment. They have just drawn up a carefully worded statement of what had happened, and the Cowans are preparing to leave; they make it as far as the elevator lobby before being invited back in again to sip coffee and taste Penelope's cobbler. The interaction so far has been civilized but as the conversation continues (and more abortive departures attempted) the protective enamel of civilization starts to wear away, revealing behavior not much more mature than what we saw in the playground.

Polanski's adapted plays before (Death and the Maiden (1994) and Macbeth (1971)--excellent adaptation, I think--come to mind); he's set films in confined spaces before (Repulsion (1965), Knife in the Water (1962) and much of The Pianist (2002) come to mind)--so this is hardly new territory. One actually wonders, though, why Polanski bothered; the play hardly seems to deliver on the promise of its title, even if said title was meant to be metaphoric (at most we get angry revelations, 'in vino veritas' and all). Polanski's nothing if not a master at chipping at civilization's brittle veneer, but in this case the unmasked faces aren't any more frightening than what you'd encounter at an office Christmas bash, or neighborhood block party.

Perhaps that's the point; perhaps what's meant to be unsettling isn't that the people are so grotesque (they are, in a more recognizable folks-cross-the-hallway kind of way) but that it takes so little to uncover their grotesquerie (all it takes, really, is a stick across the face). Perhaps Polanski was looking for an excuse to exercise his filmmaking muscles and this was the swiftest, cheapest way to do it.

I don't mind, actually; Polanski is possibly twiddling his thumbs here, but what twiddling!

I've pointed out the first shot, with its perfectly timed shock punchline; then there are the various ways Polanski maintains the tension--the Cowans constantly on the verge of leaving, Alan constantly (and infuriatingly) being called away to answer important cell phone calls (and snorting derisively as he does so).

A spectacular--almost hideously so--accident (involving Nancy, and possibly Penelope's apple-and-pear tart) forces the two couples to separate and confer privately, the Longstreets in the living room to clean up the mess, Cowans in the bathroom to clean up themselves. This is perhaps the least cinematic sequence in the film, involving Polanski crosscutting between the Cowans (where Polanski does get to use the bathroom mirror to acquire extra angles on the two) and the Longstreets (some amusing slapstick involving a hair dryer here). I imagine this could have been more cleverly presented onstage, perhaps with the two couples under separate spotlights, performing simultaneously (Polanski could have used a split-screen, but possibly felt this would be a superfluous effect). It's a necessary sequence, though; we need to know how the husbands interact with their wives, and how they view the opposing camp--sort of establishing a baseline on their private behavior before we see it start to degenerate.

When all four finally come back together--ah, then the games really begin. Polanski plays them like a chess master, swinging them across the board in attempted flanking movements, having them hurl feints, ripostes, frontal assaults (both verbal and at times even physical). The players (pieces?) take up and dissolve alliances, their formations changing as they do so: early in the film we see Penelope and Michael facing off against Nancy and Alan; later Michael and Alan retire to the liquor cabinet (Alan is stunned at the quality of Michael's 18-year-old Scotch) while Nancy and Penelope glare at them with undisguised hostility. Loyalties and antagonisms are drawn and redrawn across social classes, sexes, marital lines; and yes, purses will be thrown.

Jodie Foster's is probably the most straightforward performance as liberal progressive Penelope Longstreet; all Polanski asks of her is to be intense, and she is, tremblingly and reddishly, demanding enlightenment and getting only ennui. John Reilly has more fun as her husband Michael, all shambolic working-class camaraderie hiding a baleful resentment of the more educated types (like his wife). Nancy Cowan is arguably the most vaguely drawn of the lot--one wonders what really drives her, or turns her on (we do learn that animal cruelty freaks her out, and that she should perhaps stay away from fruit cobblers). Slyest of them all is Christoph Waltz as Nancy's faintly foreign husband, the corporate lawyer with the soft voice that delivers the sharpest, most caustic barbs; his endless phone calls are a source of endless annoyance, but at the same time results in one of the funniest punch lines (exceeded only perhaps by Nancy's cobbler response).

All of this spinning intricately, effortlessly atop the director's confident palm. Minor Polanski, almost weightless in its insignificance, but the precision with which he pulls it off reminds one of a straight razor--thin and almost painless, but very, very sharp.

First published in Businessworld 3.29.12

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