Notebook Reviews: Roman Polanski's "Carnage"

Carnage

Perversely setting another film in a fantasy New York created in studios and with computers, Roman Polanski, adapting a play by Yasmina Reza into a Brooklyn kammerspiel, turns Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel into a non-fantastic comedic farce of banal bourgeois pettiness.

The starting point, narrated in single shot during the credits, is a fight between two young boys, but that is a mere excuse for their parents (on one side, Jodie Foster and a born-for-the-part John C. Reilly, who starts as an appeaser and turns into a shit, and on the other, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) to get together, forge battle lines between the couples and start picking at all things outside their home (marriages, children, morals) before predictably but with continuous humor turning on themselves.

In a way, all the jokes feel obvious—starting with everyone’s irritation with Waltz’ continual cell-phone calls from work—but the charm of the film resides in unexpected space not of combat but positively of solace that draws these four to each other.  As in Buñuel, no one can seem to leave the location—which all takes place in a weirdly non-geographical Brooklyn apartment—but what starts as a joke (politenessnes dictating unnatural behavior) leads to a remarkably honest and earnest community, nervously yet comfortably resigned to staying together and talking things out, a place where people are free to publicly throw up, couples to fight, marriages to quake, children to be slandered.

Polanski’s filmmaking is effortless and mostly invisible, interested in the actors hitting the right gestures at the precise moment, containing or spiking each exclamation, with the form of Carnage left to continuity and keeping the talker and movers in frame, the pacing in check.  (Only Waltz is allowed some physical presence in the frame, with a notable exception being any moment when Winslet feels nauseous, one of the film’s triumphs, but at those points the film…clearly…is…setting…the…stage…for…physicality.) With the filmmaking placidly seamless the cast is likewise perfect, perfect at rising to the clichés that have been written for them, pushing them just a bit over the brink of absurdity, and holding them back before a plunge—which will undoubtably lead many to accuse the film, surprisingly, of not going far enough, lacking the truest bitter edge, the harshest, freshest vision of humanity (as all stories about people stuck in rooms must be about humanity).

But what that criticism misses is the enjoyment of Carnage, not just that it is enjoyable to watch—its weird semi-theatricality and self-awareness of its own generalities adds a subtle, compulsive edge to everyone’s expected scene-chewing—but rather that everyone seems to be secretly enjoying themselves too, actors and characters, that these people cannot leave their conflict because they are having too much enjoyment masking their bitterness, parrying attitudes, revealing secrets, getting angry, and getting drunk as an excuse to cut loose.  By devolving into awfulness these people find a kind of communal high in their safe space of hatreds, safe things to hate, safe people to fight with.  I remember a lesson from the experimental film by Carmelo Bene I saw in Venice right before I watched Carnage, that corporal solitude leads to death, and the disappointing and anti-climatic conclusion of Carnage, with its distinct lack of death and destruction, only underscores how positively thriving these people are, together.

 

This review is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in our coverage for the 2011 Venice Film Festival.

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