Carnage

Carnage

****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Roman Polanski's Carnage, this year's New York Film Festival opening night gala, drops us off in the apartment of Penelope and Michael to witness, in real time, how they handle the afternoon visit of another couple, Nancy and Alan, whose son Zachary had knocked out two teeth from their son Ethan's mouth at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Polanski is very good at inviting his audience into apartments and then leaving them there to find an unexpected treasure. In Rosemary's Baby (1968), we meet the devil in the Dakota Building on New York's Upper Westside near Central Park. In Polanski's Carnage there is no "God of" - only carnage remains from the title of playwright/co-screenwriter Yasmina Reza's play, which won the Tony Award in 2010.

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At the start, the parents of the bully bond against the parents of the victim, but alliances become brittle under Polanski's magnifying glass. While the fathers find common ground in Ivanhoe and John Wayne (or is it Cuban cigars and 18-year-old scotch?), the wives have to try harder over a Francis Bacon coffee table book: "Cruelty and splendor" they can agree on.

Unlike many of his other films where there are underlying touches of humor, Polanski plays this one more as a straight comedy. When the camera makes us feel we are sitting on Kate Winslet's lap or following Jody Foster to the refrigerator, some of the most outrageous slapstick scenes unfold. While the substance of the play itself is no match to some of the subtleties other films in this festival explore (like Asghar Farhadi's A Separation), it is a pure pleasure to watch the four actors in action, speaking in codes. Armed ("a word which excludes childhood," we are told) with a bucket, a bottle of Kronos perfume, and a hair dryer, four "fair-minded people" play a wild, deceptive and ultimately not unrealistic game of undoing each other.

We experience the polite couples unravelling and unveiling what it means to them to be a parent or even a human being. "I like the sensation of the proximity to the characters," Polanski said in an interview, "similar to the feeling to be found in Dutch paintings such as Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding, where the artist gives the spectator the sensation of being in the room." He clearly succeeds in Carnage, where the Brooklyn apartment set, which was built in a studio near Paris, closes in on the characters and the audience, offering no headroom and no intermission in the world outside.

Christoph Waltz, who won the Academy award for his Nazi portrayal in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), is a revelation as Alan. Not only does the Austrian actor speak with a very impressive American accent, his slick attorney character eats pie, and talks on the phone, and balances himself on furniture all at once, like no other. He is rude and fascinating, and Brechtian at the same time. Is he closest to the devil, covering up for a pharmaceutical company in deserved distress and more attached to his cell phone than his family? Maybe not.

The other devilish husband is the host, John C Reilly's Michael (father of the bullied boy), who sells house-ware supplies and rephrases everything his wife Penelope (Foster) says. When he tries to anticipate what she is about to say, he goes too far. Very far in many unexpected directions indeed. Michael, dressed up for the guests in gray flannel trousers with big white sneakers, shows us someone who tried to play Mr Normal Guy for so long, that he explodes. A sadistic joy about an animal experiencing terror lights up his face.

Penelope is so tense and frantic that it makes one wonder - if this was the price to pay for caring perhaps it is too high. Penelope, who works in a bookshop and writes a book about Darfur is the first to proclaim that what we are witnessing is the unhappiest day of her life. "It's a comedy of manners and how people lose those manners," Foster sums up the story in an interview.

Winslet, who plays investment broker Nancy, looks well put together, all red, white, and blue (lipstick, blouse, and silk scarf, respectively) and is soon falling apart quite differently from Foster's character. You won't be able to look at a baking dish and not think of her performance for a while. Winslet explained in an interview how much she enjoyed the luxury of having a two-week long rehearsal period: "But I don't think any of us could have predicted that Roman had us all learn the entire script, from start to finish, like a play."

Polanski's Walpurgisnacht in the afternoon doesn't kill any vampires and many will be happy to identify their neighbours in this quartet from hell.

At the end, Polanski breaks the theatre wall and lets us out to play again, by returning to the Brooklyn Bridge Park playground where we started, with 10 little boys (one of them Polanski's son Elvis as Zachary), seen from a distance, framed by the bridge on the right and a small Statue of Liberty on the left. You will also meet, in close-up, someone you have heard a lot about, and will be happy to see.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2011
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The Brooklyn bourgeoisie under the microscope in Roman Polanksi's adaptation of The God of Carnage.
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Director: Roman Polanski

Writer: Roman Polanski, Yasmina Reza

Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C Reilly

Year: 2011

Runtime: 79 minutes

Country: France, Germany, Spain, Poland


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