Wednesday, February 29, 2012
While the credits roll on Roman Polanski’s Carnage, the camera fixes its eye on a simple city park. At first, it’s not quite obvious what we should be watching. Children play, joggers jog, and life carries on quietly while the audience contemplates the significance of Kate Winslet’s two assistants to Jodie Foster’s one. Then, when the last extra thank-you has been thanked and we have been legally reassured that what we have just seen is not actually documentary truth (what a relief), a dog and its owner stop by a tree. The dog lifts its leg and—cut to the Sony Pictures Classics logo. Fini.
Perhaps Polanski is not deliberately pissing on his distributor, I’ll grant that. But the timing of the shot is immaculate, cutting off at the exact moment the dog is about to mark its territory. If anything, the moment proves two things: a) Polanski is capable of some nice cinematic sleight of hand, using an elegantly simple long take to mask a streak of puerile humour, and b) he’s still a bit of a smartass.
But any humour is a welcome relief from the vicious philosophical blood sport that plays out in Carnage. A random act of violence between two children—one smashes the other in the face with a stick, knocking out several teeth—begets even more brutal emotional violence between their parents. In this corner, we have Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), the conciliatory parents of the victim. In the opposite corner, we have Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), the contrite parents of the perpetrator. Beginning with a simple meeting at the Longstreet’s apartment to talk out the repercussions of the fight, the discussion begins defensive, turns offensive, and finally ends explosive, with all four adults indiscriminately lashing out and trying to wound whoever gets in their way.
Based on a play by Yasmine Reza (who helped Polanski adapt it to the screen), the film occasionally bears its theatrical roots in unflattering ways. Lengthy dramatic monologues in which characters confess their personal lives and value systems are better suited to the stage, where the voice often takes primacy over the visual. Such moments always feel foreign to a cinematic setting, where they often force the director to stop visualizing the drama and simply watch the performance. Polanski fares better than most others would when faced with this challenge, and the cast is all quite capable, but there are still awkward moments where the performances seem pitched not to camera but rather the back rows. It should be noted, however, that Kate Winslet projectile vomits with considerable aplomb—how do you suppose that sequence fares on Broadway?
Still, if you’re going to cram four people into a room and start the cameras rolling, you could do worse than to put Roman Polanski in charge. Ever the skilled navigator of confined spaces, the director finds subtle ways to distinguish the film from canned theatre whenever possible. Sometimes his cinematic gestures are almost grand, like the fluid tracking shot that follows Penelope through the hallway and into the bathroom, with the brittle woman neurotically tidying up everywhere she goes (twice!). But it can also be something so simple as Nancy’s nervous fingers tapping in the bottom corner of the screen as her husband chatters incessantly on his cellphone. Such details seem slight on their own, but just a few of these touches are enough to provide a sense of graceful control to what might otherwise have been a chaotic, cluttered clash of wills.
The implications of the domestic squabble at the heart of the film expand until the children’s random violence becomes a stand-in for any number of horrific conflicts on distant shores (notably, Penelope is working on a book on Darfur, while the world-weary Alan has visited the continent in person). This sets up a fairly obvious opposition between Penelope’s well-intentioned liberalism and Alan’s hard-nosed conservatism. She believes the violence between the boys should be dealt with diplomatically; he testifies to the power of the gods of carnage, and begs off responsibility. Even with the occasional rearrangement of the argument along different lines—most notably gender, when the women square off against the men—the film constantly returns to that binary between a demand for civility and a shrugging invocation of natural law.
It’s not quite accurate to say the match ends in a draw—more like the canvas collapses underneath both fighters. Indeed, Polanski puts so much effort into suggesting the phoniness of everyone’s principles that the film verges on cheap nihilism at times. He upends both the snarling cynics and wounded idealists through a series of well-timed shocks that call into question all of their platitudes about the way the world should work. None of these supposedly mature adults are in any position to understand the conflict between the boys, never mind the Darfur genocide. The childrens’ world possesses its own set of codes and values never fully grasped by the parents, who argue about right and wrong from within an impenetrable fog of arrogance (when Penelope learns her son has a “gang” and may be more complicit in the fight than she first believed, her reaction is bewilderment). The film does not take sides, but rather levels the unbearable smugness of backseat moralists everywhere. Polanski damns the parents not for their beliefs about the world, but their distance from it.