Carnage (Opening Night Selection)
A Film By Roman Polanski
Correction: This post has been updated to correct the gender of the film's co-writer, Yasmina Reza, who is a woman.
The title Carnage seems like an appropriate title for any film by the international director Roman Polanski. Not that his films are particularly violent, though they do have their horrific moments, but the word carnage seems to apply to the psychological state of the characters when they have finished their toil through the unsettling world that Mr. Polanski likes to create. When we think of Mr. Polanski as a filmmaker (as opposed to his always on-the-horizon legal troubles), we think of Jake Gittes staring blankly at a dead woman, Rosemary embracing her son of Satan, or a writer maliciously hit by a car, his life’s work simply flying into the air.
So Carnage, shortened from the Yasmina Reza play God of Carnage, seems like an appropriate for Mr. Polanski to take on. Ms. Reza’s play was a hit in Paris, London, and here in New York on Broadway, and like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a 4 person actor’s showcase more than anything else. But thematically, the play about two couples who slowly break down social order into manic chaos seems ripe for Mr. Polanski to play with visually and build into another one of his cinematic satires. Which is where the problem lies for this adaptation: the director doesn’t even begin to bite the apple. To say that Carnage is really a filmed play is an understatement to how literal of a translation this is.
Part of the problem perhaps comes from that Mr. Polanski adapted the play with Ms. Reza herself, and besides a couple of bookended shots, the film keeps the narrative space of the play the same. Not that it should necessarily—Mr. Polanski has created some of the most terrifying small spaces in films like Repulsion and Knife in the Water. And thus we open in progress as Alan and Nancy at the Brooklyn home of Michael and Penelope. As we learn, Alan and Nancy’s son has smacked a couple of teeth out of Michael and Penelope’s son. We quickly pick up on their quirks, all of which are first seen as minor. Alan (Christoph Waltz) is a somewhat absent father who can’t avoid his Blackberry. Nancy (Kate Winslet) works in finance and seems to avoid any sort of conflict. Michael (John C Riley) sells hardware appliances and seems nonchalant about it all. Penelope (Jodie Foster) is working on a book about Darfur and sees herself as a righteous do-gooder.
While these personalities seem to get on fine enough to begin save for a few minor hints of disagreement—Alan protests when Penelope claims his son was “armed” with a stick. But every time things seem like a conclusion, something pulls these two couples back together, and things start to get nasty. And thus we go from polite argument to full on insanity. The title, as Alan puts it, comes from the idea that humans are controlled by the God of Carnage, and rage is our fundamental state. And certainly here, we get plenty of that.
But while you get in the dialogue, and certainly the over-the-top performances, you don’t get it in Mr. Polanski’s camera at all. While he does choose some interesting tableaux and uses handheld appropriately, to say this is one of Mr. Polanski’s most reserved films would be an understatement. Simply consider his last film, an adaptation of the airport thriller The Ghost Writer. What was simple scares on paper became sadistically gruesome fun for the director, and just the title of that film conjures up that sublime window that seems to bring the clouded darkness into the cold home of which the characters are trapped. There’s nothing particularly memorable about the set design in Carnage, and you feel Mr. Polanski could have played more with lighting or even gone off the deep end if he wanted to if he was not tied to the hip with Ms. Reza.
Similarly, the performances have not translated well to the film as well. You’d think since each of these actors are considered some of the finest of their generation, they would understand the difference between theater acting and film acting. In the theater, you can get away with letting it all go, as the feedback loop of the audience will build it and invest them more. Not in film, which requires subtlety and wit at every moment, with a careful precision of every line. Mr. Riley, Ms. Foster, and especially Ms. Winslet seem to believe an audience is sitting right in the room with them as they shout their lines at the top of their longue, going for gestures and mannerisms much more suited for the proscenium. Only Mr. Waltz, with his playful accent and slow delivery of dialogue seems to know the score. When he has a big moment, he comes up close and almost whispers his lines, knowing that the camera will do the rest.
Carnage is at times very funny, and a lot of Ms. Reza’s lines are very funny. But even those who haven’t seen Ms. Reza’s play will feel like it would be better suited on stage. There is something about the play’s implications of how we all might act inside that is better when you are sitting in an audience and the insults can be thrown at you as well. With film, that strip of light creates an immediate separation, where we are free to observe without being observed. That it unless you use film as it was designed, and how Mr. Polanski has done so well in the past. While film is a perfect medium for Carnage’s biting humor, Mr. Polanski has left it inaudible in its theatrical state.