Roman Polanski has always had a thing about apartments. The stage set of urban life, the apartments in iconic Polanski works like Repulsion (1965), The Tenant (1976) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are where psychological dramas unfold and where madness incubates.
The apartment is also a metaphor for the isolation of contemporary life: of people packed in close together but alienated from each other’s experience. Not exactly a surprising insight from a director who survived the Holocaust as a young Jewish child by hiding out in various strangers’ homes.
In Polanski’s adaption of playwright Yasmina Reza’s The Gods of Carnage for film, truncated to Carnage, the director returns to a theme of apartment show downs (think of the Satanists versus the young mother in Rosemary’s Baby) and the potential for violence and hatred lurking inside polite social behavior, with which Polanski has had ample real world experience.
Reza’s plays document what we tend to think of as First-World problems; quarrels over the social contract of politeness and good behavior. The debate at the center of her 1996 play Art, was whether minimalist art is pretentious crap or a valid consumer purchase. While the rest of the world contends with guinea worms, famine, endless war, and genocide the big problems in Carnage’s yuppified Brooklyn are over-analytical, Monday-morning quarterbacking of playground squabbles and class envy. Reminiscent of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s work, which also reveals the brutality and cruel calculation lying behind polite First-World behavior, Carnage is Haneke with an absurdist touch and a less incisive edge.
Carnage opens with a playground incident observed in long shot: a gaggle of preteen boys are seen in the distance playing on a stretch of grass near the East River and engaged in some pivotal argument. They move back and forth, defensive and aggressive. A blow is struck. This moment of violence is the catalyst for a war waged between their parents, which comprises the meat of Carnage’s matter. Polanski’s bickering, tongue-lashing protagonists are two married couples trying to hash out the best way to deal with a playground battle between their sons that has left one of them in need of serious dental work. Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) has invited the attacking boy’s parents Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) to her and husband Michael’s (John C. Reilly) tastefully decorated Brooklyn apartment to sort out the details of the children’s argument: who is to blame and what the consequences will be and whether or not—the elephant in the room—legal action will be taken.
Model Brooklynites, the Longstreets are socially aware, sensitive, up on Third-World genocide and in possession of good scotch. They keep art books on their coffee table, are courteous and compassionate. They are, in a word, civilized. Into their sedate apartment/theater enter the parents of the boy who has struck and wounded the Longstreet’s son. Immediately recognizable as “uptown” to Penelope and Michael’s bougie downtown, Alan and Nancy are dressed for work—respectively—at the refined battlegrounds of the law firm and the investment brokerage house.
Conciliatory gestures are clearly not high-powered lawyer Alan’s strong suit. As the drama in the living room unfolds he wages an aggressive war of words on his cellphone with an office lackey, running interference with a threatened lawsuit against his firm’s drug manufacturer client.
As the visit continues, things go quickly south. Even as they pass the apartment’s threshold, Nancy and Alan can’t seem to escape: coffee is offered, a phone call is taken. They step back into the Longstreet’s home. Penelope serves some unrefrigerated cobbler. Nancy throws it up. Nancy drowns Alan’s incessantly chirping cell phone in a vase. Michael and Alan get loaded. Nancy gets loaded. Disastrously, since she appears to have a history of substance abuse, Penelope gets loaded, and suffers a weepy meltdown.
Soon the pretense of concern for their fellow human beings and setting a sober, rational example for their young children breaks down and the situation is revealed for what it is: a power struggle in which each side longs to claim some sort of victory, whether that victory is moral superiority or avoidance of a lawsuit.
Per his usual, Polanski’s Brooklyn apartment set is a laboratory of compressed, up-too-close anxiety and aggression. As the couples continue to bicker about whose child was most in the wrong, a gender schism also develops, perhaps Carnage’s least pleasant take on contemporary mores. In Carnage Penelope represents the demanding, hectoring, self-righteous woman (no doubt Polanski would point to Jane Fonda and Susan Sarandon as prime examples) and Nancy is the more masculine-aligned, compliantly sexy female, going through the gestures of making peace with Penelope, though her heart isn’t really in it.
The dynamic between the couples is fascinating. Michael is clearly a bit of a vulgarian who has donned his symbolic cowed and emasculating v-neck sweater and put on his company face for his wife’s benefit. But when the scotch comes out, his shellac of good behavior is shed like a snake’s skin. The transformations of these self-possessed urbanites is admittedly enjoyable to behold, especially as it affects the cell-phone addicted Christoph Waltz. Like the Rabelaisian sex addict played by Peter Coyote in Bitter Moon, Alan’s disgust with the whole charade of mending fences is a delicious corrective to all of the P.C. politeness unfurling around him. He shows a refusal to care too deeply about two little boys on a playground when his adult, legal business is on his mind. In the gender polarities of Polanskiville men have to be goaded and forced into minding their manners. But when the Scotch tumblers are filled, look out. The men reveal their hidden prejudices, racial, gender, and otherwise.
Carnage is on the “meh” side of the spectrum of Polanski’s work, far superior to films like The Ninth Gate or Frantic, but nowhere near the master works Knife in the Water or Rosemary’s Baby. The linchpin of the drama is fairly one-note: beneath civility lies cruelty. And there is perhaps a bit too much New Yorker-style, upper-middle self-satisfaction in that rather thin insight. The whole enterprise is a bit too arch and too farcical to really test an audience’s comfort zone or force unpleasant considerations of humankind’s base nature. That is more the hallmark of Michael Haneke’s work. Finding self-interest behind pretension isn’t exactly revelatory.
And ultimately, Carnage is nowhere near showing the worst of human behavior. As Penelope’s sputtering and venting about the outrages in Darfur reminds us, the human animal has done far worse than no-holds-barred city folk deflating each others’ pretenses. The Cowans and Longstreets may shed their civilized husks for a moment, but they retain the armor of their time and place and never quite achieve the barbarism the title hints at.
Carnage opens January 13 in Atlanta.
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