Directed by Roman Polanski
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Originally posted on December 16 on the National Board of Review web site.
Carnage is Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of the play God of Carnage, written by Yasmina Reza in 2006 and first produced in Germany, Paris and London with original cast members including Isabelle Huppert and Ralph Fiennes.
The play appeared on Broadway in 2009 with James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels, and Marcia Grey Harden all being nominated for Tony awards as the couples who meet up after their sons have a fight in a Brooklyn park. Those who have seen the English language productions will notice some interesting word play at work – Polanski insisted on creating a new translation of the original French language text before working with the author to adapt the play to the screen.
Carnage is a bit like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfwithout the jagged violence and Rabbit Hole without the debilitating pain of loss. It is a relentless film that pulls the viewer into a real time scene that recreates the experience of live theater in an exciting and cinematic way. Except for two shots, the opening and closing long-duration takes of kids playing in a New York Park park, the story plays out completely in real time. Beginning with a shot of the legal letter that the couples are composing in regards to the incident that brought them together and ending on a tableau of the exhausted couples, unable to respond to anyone or anything in the room, Carnage unleashes a powerful menage of acting, directing and cinematic techniques. With no “opening up” of the story by adding scenes or shifting locations for visual variety the film is lean (78 minutes), condensed, and pulsing with the non- stop energy.
Polanski’s work with cinematographer Pawel Edleman (Ghost Writer, Ray, Oliver Twist, The Pianist) and, in a return to cinema after 10 years, production designer Dean Tavoularis (Zabriskie Point, Little Big Man, Godfather, Apocalypse Now) feels effortless and invisible – never does the camerawork or the remarkably realistic set get in the way of the perpetually unwinding relationships of the Cowan and Longstreet families.
Zachary Cowan has struck Ethan Longstreet across the face with a small tree branch, an event that takes place off-screen in the play but is seen – in an extremely wide shot that distances the viewer physically and emotionally from the event – in the opening of the film. When the credit sequence ends we find Penelope Longstreet, with husband Michael over her shoulder, at the computer typing her version of the incident. Standing just off-screen are Zachary’s parents, Alan and Nancy. Penelope’s description of Zachary as “armed with a stick” catches Michael’s ear and his objection to the phrase and the Longstreet’s seeming desire to accommodate him are all it takes to loosen the wheels and set the cart of civilization they had been riding into the first steps of the free fall it will soon attain.
The Longstreets and the Cowan’s are similar enough that their children attend the same school and probably live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. But they also swim in quite different financial waters – Michael Longstreet, played in a loose, ordinary guy manner by John C. Reilly, works in home product sales. His wife Penelope, a tense and taut Jodie Foster, wrote an art book and is currently writing something about the tragedy in Darfur. The Cowan’s, who’s son is the aggressor, are all business. Alan is played by Christoph Waltz as a self-obsessed lawyer from hell – the hell being his constant interchange vial cell phone with clients and business partners. Nancy is a banker who, played by Kate Winslet, is stuck living in the shadows offer husband’s 24/7 telephone work-cycle.
The acting itself a pleasure to experience – the characters bounce off each other as they react to real and perceived slights to their parenting skills, the depth of harm to the children, who was the instigator and who is ultimately responsible. Polanski worked with the actors to memorize the complete text, as though they were producing a play, then shot the film in chronological order. At the conclusion of each day the actors would run the rest of the play, a process that Riley has described as “grueling and invigorating”. Polanski and Edleman’s camerawork is opportune and precise, the performances feel live but the film is painstakingly constructed as a cinematic experience. Whether filming a shot/reverse shot set-up when the characters face off across the low living room table, going wide to show the isolation and separation experienced between the couples (and by the couples themselves as the story develops) or pulling in close to show us the details that make up each character’s essential nature, Polanski finds the true and dramatic moment. Each character’s true nature is revealed in tight penetrating framing: Penelope’s tension is marked by the bulging veins across her forehead, the tired and sad nature of Nancy’s life is hidden deep in her eyes, Michael’s playful but almost hidden disdain for his own liberal life-style is revealed in his tight smile, and Alan’s amusement that any thing else really matters but his drive to consume business is magnified by the phone pressed tight to his ear.
Carnage is a comedy that engages more on the intellectual than emotional level. To that degree it benefits from the bending of rules that comedies can engage in and nearly gets away with what seems a central flaw – why doesn’t Alan and Nancy (Waltz and Winslet) just leave. Unlike the allegorical experiences of the upper-class dinner party guests in Luis Buñuel’sExterminating Angel who inexplicably can not leave the parlor and withstand days of hunger, violence and madness, or the soon-to-be doomed people in the purgatory of Sartre’s No Exit, Alan and Nancy are New Yorkers – and New Yorkers don’t sit around and take it. Some of the choices seem forced (specifically a moment in the hallway when they are about to get on the elevator, begin to argue, and a neighbor peers out at them) though others make more sense (Nancy’s “illness” requires lots of cleaning up and pulling themselves together).
There are some missteps in the film – the ending in particular seems to abandon the approach that had served the film throughout and resolves the affair on a single wide shot, bringing the story to a theatrical as opposed to cinematic conclusion. The material is also a bit restrained for a Polanski film. There is never the release of true violence that fuel his earlier films: the man-to-man face offs of Knife in the Water, the bizarre realities of Rosemarie’s Baby, Repulsion and The Tenant, the murderous aggression of Chinatown. But these are minor complaints. Carnage is an engaging clinic on world-class directing, fluid ensemble acting, the perfection of camera placement and framing, and precision editing. It’s fun, it’s short, and it effectively merges the best elements of theater and cinema.
Thomas W. Campbell