Carnage. Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Toni award-winning play ‘The God of Carnage’ tells the story of two middle-class couples meeting in an apartment in an affluent New York suburb after their sons get into a fight. Things begin pleasantly enough: coffee, cake, pretentious art, more cake. But when carefully maintained personas are allowed to slip, civilised sensibilities give way to brute instinct. Let the mind games begin!
A scuffle in the park and a stick in the face means broken teeth and a comedy of domestic terrors that makes the Cuban missile crisis look like a civilised sit down over a nice cup of tea. The afternoon begins with well intentioned politeness and ends with alcohol-fuelled verbal pyrotechnics as both couples criticise each other’s parenting prowess while refusing to admit fault or accept blame themselves. What happens in between is the result of a volatile combination of unrealistic expectations, false smiles and uncomfortable home-truths.
As the characters rub up against each other’s prejudices, sparks fly as they recognise in one another the disappointments and failings in their own lives. Beneath the sniping and thinly veiled insults are revealed the hopes and fears of a generation of baby boomers struggling to grow up. Polanski directs a powerhouse cast and produces a victory for no-nonsense performances in a situation comedy for people who don’t like situation comedies.
Jodie Foster is Penelope Longstreet. Conscientious and terminally high strung, an art lover who feels responsible for the situation in Darfur while oblivious to the civil war brewing under her own roof. ‘It’s a comedy of people’s manners’, says Foster, ‘and how they lose those manners.’ Kate Winslet plays Nancy Cowan, a working mother whose sophisticated veneer of cold professionalism is eventually abandoned as she struggles with her perpetually pre-occupied husband, played with impish irreverence by Christophe Waltz, concerned more about a relationship with his Blackberry than with his family.
John C. Reilly plays Penelope’s husband Michael who seems desperate to keep the peace and to whistle to his tightly wound wife’s tune. The couple’s united fronts are clearly forced and help to create an amusingly uncomfortable atmosphere which is strongly felt and becomes more pronounced as the situation develops. Polanski cranks up the tension with tight close-ups and unflattering camera angles, unwilling to let even a single back-handed syllable drop to the floor unnoticed. Each awkwardly restrained action has its own equal and opposite reaction, at first repressed but eventually indulged with appropriately satisfying theatricality.
The film takes a hard look at the consequence of a lack of tolerance in a society which seems civilised on the surface but brutish and malignant behind closed doors. Polanski presents an entertaining portrayal of Reza’s idea of what might happen if two civilised, middle-class couples were to meet to decide whose son is a bigger threat to homeland security. The action is at times agonising to watch and the performances are exaggerated by Polanski’s economic direction. The camera doesn’t move a great deal, it sits still and takes in the scene, a silent witness to the carnage waiting to unfold behind the characters pearly white smiles and in spite of their Ivy League educations. ‘You can take the man out of the cave but you can’t take the cave out of the man’ might have been a suitable tagline.
The film is Polanski’s sardonic swipe at the modern family dynamic and the challenges parents face raising their children according to the “Western values” Penelope Longstreet so passionately defends. The film is undoubtedly entertaining but does it offer a shrewd insight into middle-class sensibilities, or is it merely a satirical send-up of traditional family values and a melodramatic look the pressures of maintaining them?
In his review in the New York Times A.O Scott recognises the satire in Yasmina Reza’s screenplay and acknowledges Polanski’s treatment of it as appropriately stagy. But as an upper middle-class Brooklynite himself by his own admission, Scott doesn’t buy it. If Yasmina Reza’s play offered a sincere glimpse through an affluent Brooklyn window (although an admittedly hysterical glimpse), Scott sees Polanski as the irreverent schoolboy pressing his nose against the glass and sniggering uncontrollably to himself behind the camera. ‘Satire requires a bit more specificity, and as a portrait of anxious, status-conscious Brooklyn parents living in a chiaroscuro of self-righteousness and guilt, “Carnage” misses its mark badly’, says Scott, perhaps more a caricature than a portrait, less recognizable and more laughable.
Another middle-class white man writing for the Chicago Sun Times, Roger Ebert, argues that Carnage works precisely because of its dramatic excesses. And it is because of these excesses that its message is all the more discernable. ‘Good manners are often skin deep’, says Ebert, adding that ‘compassion and forgiveness are hard to come by, and that when it comes down to your son and my son, I'm going to consider my son in the right, and yours, well, possibly, a homicidal maniac’.
This particular middle-class white man (now feeling the appropriate amount of middle-class guilt) sympathises with Polanski’s cynicism, even if he doesn’t entirely agree with the attitude which fosters it. It is one thing to extol the virtues of compassion over a cup of coffee but when the gloves come off and the scotch comes out, what do we really know about ourselves and how much are we willing to reveal? In a society which brutalises so mercilessly as ours does, should we really be surprised if it produces brutes? Polanski seems to think not.
But perhaps we should let someone else have the final word? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit-bull? Lipstick!”
Ronan Wright reviews films at Filmplicity.