It’s hard to fathom that Roman Polanski has been making films for 50 years now. His early output was a revelation, making a name for himself with a unique brand of taut claustrophobic thrillers (See Knife in the Water/Repulsion). Seething with a palpable sense of anxiety, Polanski pushed his subjects to psychological breaking point with the enclosed surroundings amplifying the tension to almost unbearable levels. In short, they were bad places to be, especially if you happened to advocate bourgeois values. Downton Abbey, had it been made in 1960′s Poland probably would have had the entire cast holed up, soiled knickers and all, in the study with wolves roaming the corridors. It was in its mockery of the Bourgeoisie that European cinema was in its element. While never overtly political, Polanski revelled in using them as fodder. Even through visions of the American dream in Rosemary’s Baby & Chinatown, widely considered all-time greats, many of the hallmarks of his previous work shine through.
However, since that 1960′s/1970′s golden period; whether making conspiracy movies with Harrison Ford, big budget pirate adventures or dodgy horror flicks, his output has ranged from the strange to the down right awful, picking up a best director Oscar for The Pianist along the way. He seemed out of sorts for such a long time. So it was a surprise to hear that Polanski was seemingly revisiting his roots with an ensemble character study in Carnage.
If walking into the experience blind, you could look at the ingredients; a Polanski film, based on a play called ‘God of Carnage’, with the single apartment setting playing host to an all-out bourgeois smack down. You would be forgiven for expecting a world of pain, and upon seeing the film you wouldn’t be far off, except that you’re going to laugh. A lot. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more satisfying comedy all year.
Set over the course of a single afternoon, in the aftermath of a playground scuffle between two 11 year-old school boys, the Cowans (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) visit the Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) to discuss the problem between their respective sons. What begins as a straightforward social courtesy develops into polite finger pointing and before long, prejudices slip out, the veneer of civilized discussion fritters away, and that’s when things well and truly kick off. A barking dog, a bottle of whiskey, a ringing cell phone, some not-so tasty left overs; all at some point seem to conspire, almost supernaturally to pour gas onto the fire.
Not unlike Luis Bunuel’s 1962 masterpiece The Exterminating Angel the Cowans find that they’re bound to the apartment, except this time not by a mysterious unspoken force, but by invitation of the Longstreets. Neither able to let it drop. This is something Polanski could have possibly made 30 years ago. Like Repulsion, the downtown Brooklyn apartment is a black hole. The irresistible pull of psychosis replaced with one of egocentric stupidity. Even the opening scene, in the context of a Polanski film (a static shot from behind the trees), showing a peripheral conflict in the scope of a wide shot encompassing both the playground and the Hudson river could be viewed with a more sinister connotation if it weren’t for the Alexandre Desplat score which appears straight out of a feel-good 80’s comedy.
Despite the films origins as a stage-play being entrenched in its DNA, this is a dynamic film that is unflinching in its moments of tension whilst allowing for larger than life, eccentric performances from its cast. Huge credit of course has to go to the screenplay which reduces the concerns of adults in modern society to schoolyard triviality. Considering the setting is restricted mostly to one room, the pacing is perfect. With a simple symmetry to the composure of the shots, movement between rooms is expressed with a roaming handheld camera style familiar within Polanski’s early work.
Waltz and Reilly are in their anarchic element as the sneering egotistical attorney and the blue collar blunt tool. It is Foster though, as the anthropological writer; the sanctimonious, emotional ticking-time bomb, and Winslet as the elitist, emotionally sterile investment broker who, playing against type, really let everything hang out and provide the film’s funniest moments. Their group breakdown is a gleeful crescendo of farce and political incorrectness. And as none of the characters have much in the way of redeemable personality traits, all four collectively make up the ultimate toss-pot. You enjoy their descent into hysteria like watching animals on a wildlife documentary or ironically small children in a playground.
I have to admit my first thought as the credits rolled, ‘I can think of a handful of situations in my adult life, which I would look back on with a much greater fondness if they went a little more like that’. One interpretation is that Carnage is a comedy for anyone who has had to bite their tongue. It is also Roman Polanski in his element; society eating itself under the stress of its own vanity.
A very funny film, with excellent performances all round.