Arts & Events

Carnage: Welcome to Our Humble Home; Grab Your Forks!

Review by Gar Smith
Tuesday January 10, 2012 - 10:51:00 AM

Carnage opens at Berkeley's Shattuck Cinema on January 13.

Roman Polanski's latest film could best be described as a comedy of manners — really bad manners.

If you liked "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" (another film-to-play translation featuring a quartet of quarreling couples), this Big Screen sparring match may be just your cup of tease. 

Carnage offers a rich serving of class warfare with clashing egos and gender battles thrown in as side dishes. Meet the contenders: Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) is a liberal human rights campaigner with one co-authored book to her credit and another "in the works." Her husband, Michael (John C. Reilly), is an under-achieving wholesaler. Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) is a smug, high-powered businessman and his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet) is his match as a strong-willed woman who has just about had it with his self-important nattering on an ever-present cell phone. 

Except for the panoramic playground scene that begins and ends the film, all of the action takes place inside the Longstreet's New York apartment where Michael and Penelope have agreed to meet Alan and Nancy Cowan to discuss a playground dust-up between their two boys. 

The initial "meet-nice" façade of civility between the two wildly dissimilar couples soon reaches a critical mass as a cyclotronic collision of egos and parental defenses spirals totally beyond control, triggering a hilarious, flaring meltdown. This is a game of double-team emotional racquet-ball where the living room becomes a court. 

Part of the pleasure in watching Carnage is that, while it begins quietly, in even tones and polite (if distracted and brittle) conversation, you know there's a social train wreck waiting around the next bend. And every time someone has had enough and tries to make a dash for the door, you know they aren't going to make that escape — no way, no how. 

The script (based on Yasmina Reza's London hit, "God of Carnage") relishes in chronicling the ongoing war of words. It begins as a convert war in which a single, telling choice of words — or the timing, tone or inflection in which a phrase is wrapped — can become a conversational casus belli

Initially, the battle rages between individuals, then it escalates to a battle between "nations" (the two sparing couples), followed by surprising alliances between the two men against the women, then a confederacy of the women against the men and, finally, Total War where everyone is fair game. 

A film of a play is a special kind of cinema. Because the action does not take place in movie space or in movie time, it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief. These characters exist within the walled parameters of a stage play — confined, in this case, to the Longstreet's cramped and meticulously art-filled living room with only occasional forays into the bathroom or the hallway. And the story is told in real time. 

It is understood going in that we are not expected to believe that we are seeing "real people" engaged in a "spontaneous" story. We know these are famous, award-winning actors. We know they are "playing roles." So the pleasure in viewing Carnage comes, not so much from the skill of the playwright (which is outstanding) as much as from the performances of the actors chosen to play the four iconic characters. 

Watching Carnage is more akin to listening to a jazz quartet of brilliant musicians "playing the playwright's score" and reaching heights of collective harmony. Polanski spent several weeks with his actors working together in rehearsal (a rare occurrence in contemporary filmmaking). The result was worth the effort. The ensemble of Winslet, Foster, Waltz and Foster jams and rocks. And, as you would have with a jazz performance, each actor is given opportunities to "solo" that make you want to jump to your feet and applaud. But you won't be able to, because you're most likely to be doubled over with laughter or jammed into your seat-cushions cringing in tense horror at some protagonist's raw emotional anguish. 

In Carnage, nothing is left standing in the carpeted battlefield of the Longstreet's living room. Tea is spilled; leftovers and handbags are flung; Nancy will upchuck; and even the cell phone will meet its own deserved fate. 

Special Note: Don't leave the theater before the very last frame of the credit scroll. The film ends, as it begins, with the camera trained on the public playground. But this time, the slow, wordless tableau that Polanski allows to unfold puts the squabbles of the parents into an amusing and humbling perspective. One more thing: keep your eye on the dog in the park. With exquisite timing, he gets to make the final point.