When one thinks of director Roman Polanski, farcical comedies don’t immediately come to mind. Then again, when one thinks of Polanski, very specific and fairly unsavoury things come to mind. Still, the man who brought us the masterpieces Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown doesn’t seem like an immediate fit for an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage; a single-location comedy of manners in which a group of adults slowly devolve into screaming babies over the course of one afternoon. The only element of Carnage that makes it sit somewhat comfortably in Polanski’s oeuvre is the fact it takes place entirely within the confines of an apartment. And I’m not necessarily referring to his legendary ‘Apartment Trilogy’ here. Rather, after spending much of 2009 and 2010 under house arrest, it’s fair to assume he’s become adept at navigating within four walls.
As the picture’s opening credits roll, two young boys get into an altercation in Brooklyn Bridge Park, culminating with one hitting the other in the face with a tree branch. We never get to hear the kids explain themselves or their situation. Instead, we find ourselves cooped up in the home of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), two New York liberals who want justice for their injured child. They’ve invited over the tightly-wound mother and disinterested father of the guilty party, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), as an act of reconciliation. All agree that they’re above the squabbling of little boys; the Longstreets are conciliatory, and the Cowans are apologetic. But don’t let the doves out of the box just yet. As Nancy and Alan head for the elevator doors, Penelope reveals her reservations about the peace treaty. Is Cowan Jr. at all sorry for “disfiguring” their boy? The quartet heads back inside, this time slightly more defensive, and gradually war erupts.
The stage productions of Reza’s work have featured plenty of talented performers, but a finer team than Foster, Reilly, Winslet and Waltz you are unlikely to find. Waltz and Reilly are hilarious as the blue and white collar husbands, respectively. However, it’s Foster and Winslet who have to endure total mental breakdowns and disintegrate their characters’ closely guarded personas. Although it hardly needs to be said at this point in their decorated careers, they’re fantastic. Polanski and Reza adapted the screenplay together, and in its short 79 minute runtime, they afford each character wonderful comic moments; sometimes restrained, sometimes wildly unhinged (when the scotch comes out, things really take a turn for the worse).
Carnage‘s commentary on class – as well as the unnatural pretence of politeness between enemies – is about a subtle as a sledgehammer (or rather, a viciously swung branch). That ‘politeness between enemies’ is later established as a metaphor for marriage allows for the couples to fracture and face-off against themselves, adding a twist half-way through proceedings. That being said, it’s hard to imagine Carnage working better on film than it would as a play. Polanski and his DP Pawel Edelman attempt a series of interesting compositions to keep viewers interested, but as a result the location doesn’t feel quite as claustrophobic as it should (consider the increasingly cramped jury room in 12 Angry Men). It also makes less sense in the world of cinema for these characters to remain so far up in each other’s grills for this inordinate an amount of time. It’s easier to buy into the reality of the situation in theatre, where there is seemingly no outside world off the stage for anyone to run to. At least the movie turns Nancy and Alan’s inability to escape into a nice running joke.
Carnage opens in Australian cinemas March 1, 2012.