“Penelope, I believe in the god of carnage, the god who’s been unchallenged since the beginning of time.”
Critically acclaimed director Roman Polanski (The Pianist, Rosemary’s Baby) has adapted Yasmina Reza’s award-winning play, (God of Carnage, to make one of 2011’s best films. Carnage is a daring, perfectly cast comedy that presents a supremely authentic story of a day in the lives of well-to-do Americans, and one that, ironically, might have only been possible coming from a French-German-Spanish-Polish production. Shot in Paris but set in Brooklyn, Polanski’s latest film presents a view of “civilized” society that is equal parts “cruelty and splendor, chaos and balance.”
In the film, married couple Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) meet with Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) to civilly and maturely discuss a playground fight that has occurred between their sons. The Longstreets’ apartment (where the meeting is held, and the entire film set) is the perfect, contemporary yuppie home, and the parents involved are all respectable, hard-working, upper-class liberal-leaning adults. What—the beginning of the film seems to ask—could possibly go wrong?
As new details emerge about the boys’ fight (which one got called a “snitch,” which one was running the gang, etc.), the parents’ true natures are revealed, and the slaughter of each character’s culturally prescribed role commences. Have they gathered, the viewer wonders, because they are responsible and mature adults, or are they (like most parents) simply living up to the expectation that they operate within a certain cordial, liberal code? The film shows how far they will (and must) go to prove that they are good and loving people, and how short they will fall in the attempt.
Cultural theory abounds, but Polanski delivers his powerful material in a straightforward, unsentimental way, similar to his work on The Pianist. Any discomfort that may be experienced over what is, essentially, a humorous attack on the notion of identity soon fades. However, the film is not some high-art artifact readily placed amongst Penelope Longstreet’s expensive textiles and authentic African figurines. Carnage resists such placement (which it evokes as much as it critiques) because it is, above all, a comedy. While each character is played exceptionally well, Reilly—as Penelope’s husband—stands out. A master of comedic delivery, one cannot help but to see shades of Dale Doback (Reilly’s role from Step Brothers) in the performance. In fact, Michael Longstreet is Dale, if Dale had gone on to marry an upper-class, Africa-hearting liberal. The havoc he reeks in Carnage is almost entirely verbal (although there is reference to some light-to-heavy hamster homicide), but is nonetheless hilarious. Once he angrily admits to being “dressed up like a liberal” by his wife, the Scotch comes out of the liquor cabinet, and the characters’ interactions weave fantastically in and out of the complex and absurd world of adult conversation.
“The couple is the worst invention of God,” declares Michael at one point. “That and the family.” Foster plays the ever-incredulous wife who insists that her husband could not really, possibly believe this. (Michael insists that he does, and, in fact, thinks worse.) The conversation—and the film, as a result—is full of such gems. Social commentary is delivered as it should be—in sharp, delicious morsels. Foster’s Penelope is the perfect caricature of anybody who has ever taken themselves (or their work, or their collection of fine art books) very, very seriously. In one of the film’s best lines, she fervently defends herself to Waltz’s enemy-parent: “Don’t you tell me about suffering in Africa! It’s all I’ve been THINKING about for the past few months!”
Such melodramatics do get to be a bit much at times. Foster plays her character to the point of being ridiculous, but this seems to be the point as even the other characters shun her for her emotional overplay. As “the drunk girl at the party,” Winslet’s Nancy wears on the viewer a bit, as well, and the performances sometimes make it obvious that the movie is based on a play. Polanski may have wanted his interpretation to maintain much of the essence of Reza’s original work. Unfortunately, Carnage loses something as a movie when some of its scenes so closely resemble those of a theatrical production. (Especially difficult to believe—that the Cowans cannot seem to get out of that apartment.)
Ultimately, the film succeeds in its care for (and elevation of) the small things. Carnage plays like a Virginia Woolf novel reads—a woman’s concern for the warmth of a baked good and the whisperings of a couple just above the hum of an espresso machine can be moments of a catastrophic nature, if presented as such.
A short piece (roughly 80 minutes running time), Polanski’s film opens with the two boys, Zachary and Ethan, fighting and closes with them back in the playground, happily watching some wonderful nonsense video on a cell phone. Meanwhile, their parents have returned to the “playground” themselves, one populated with fellow primitive, immature, small beings.
Winslet describes Carnage as a movie that changes so much as it unfolds that an entirely different movie will suddenly appear on screen. At any given moment, two characters might be propelled into an intimate, albeit transient, alliance with each other. Intimacy occurs as easily as alienation. While Penelope and Nancy are aligned at times (as wives against husbands or women against men), they are, as often, repulsed by the other’s performance and presentation of motherhood and femininity. The Cowans are mirror images of each other—the one clinging to her purse and posh makeup, the other to his incessantly ringing cell phone. But we watch as their similarities drive them apart, and Mrs. Cowan receives attention from Mr. Longstreet, the wholesaler who cares and, then again, couldn’t care less.
Because the story is so character-driven, any change in the position of the characters changes the nature of the film, though in a highly organic way. Polanski himself hoped to deliver a sensation of intimacy akin to that which might be felt while looking at Van Eyck’s 1434 painting, The Arnolfini Wedding. Carnage brings that portraiture-associated realism to life, inviting the viewer to take part—be it literally or figuratively—in the beautiful and uncomfortable slaughter that is everyday American life.
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Yasmina Reza (original play and screenplay) & Roman Polanski (screenplay)
Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz
Release Date: Dec. 16, 2011