For Polanski, a Different Kind of Carnage

I reviewed Carnage, the new Roman Polanski film, when it opened the NY Film Festival back in September. Of course, since this blog was in limbo, you may not have known about or seen that review. But with the film finally receiving its theatrical premiere, just in time for the Oscar noms, I think it's worth including it here:

There is a tiny detail in Carnage, the new Roman Polanski film which opened this year’s New York Film Festival, something small but telling in the excellent production design by Dean Tavoularis. The film, which is almost a verbatim rendering of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, is a sardonic reflection on how well-intentioned and soi-disant sophisticated New Yorkers deal with the intrusion of violence on a small scale into their lives. As part of Tavoularis’s living room set, in which most of the action takes place, there is a piano with music stand, complete with assorted sheet music. On the corner of an open page of music one spies what appears to be blood spatter. As the film works through its brief 80-minute duration, we see that image again but closer and eventually it comes to resemble a cartoon splotch like something out of the kids’ cable channel Nickelodeon.

That gradual transformation is a perfect visual metaphor for the trajectory of Polanski’s film. At the outset, it seems to be a somewhat barbed satire on class relations in New York, with the upper-class Cowans (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) visiting the middle-class Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), to put to rest a playground incident in which their son Zachary hit Ethan Longstreet with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth, the sort of altercation between ten-year-olds that used to be settled between the kids.

Reza’s play takes the two couples through all the possible stages of negotiation, from obsequiousness through belligerence and back again, with the women pairing off against the men, the couples against one another and everyone else against Penelope (Foster), the lone holdout voice for some mushy version of enlightened progressivism. Reza ruthlessly caricatures every possible point of view from left to right until the verbiage becomes just so much point-scoring silliness. It’s a feast for four actors looking for a play that reads like the result of one improv game too many, and Winslet, Waltz and Reilly are clearly having a ball switching sides for every possible permutation.

But it is Foster who is the revelation here. Playing a demented version of her touchy-feely mom act, she gradually transmutes into a character out of a Tex Avery cartoon. You keep waiting for her head to explode, her eyes to bug out on stalks, her tongue to wrap itself around her necking while stars burst out of her nose and smoke gushes from her ears. She and Polanski manage to find the next nearest thing and the result is simply hilarious.

Therein lies the basic problem with the film, or at any rate, the play. It’s a live-action Warner Brothers Merry Melodie run amok. Polanski plays against the text’s overload by parsing the visual tracking deftly, shifting power vectors between the characters with a deadpan precision that makes the whole thing tick over like a finely honed machine. For a guy whose childhood was spent running from the Nazis, this is a cakewalk, and the threat of violence, never very serious, is given as much weight as it deserves, which is very little.

As a result, Carnage is minor Polanski, deliciously well crafted and very, very funny, but rather inconsequential, a showcase for some very clever acting turns, bracketed a smart pair of bookend scenes that take the film briefly outdoors without doing violence to its essential structure.

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