Year: 2011
Director: Roman Polanski
Country: France/Germany/Poland/Spain
Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski (based on Yasmina Reza’s play Le Dieu du carnage, translated by Michael Katmis)
Cinematography: Pawel Edelman
Cast: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Runtime: 79 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: Sony Pictures Classics

Seen at the BFI Members’ Preview screening on January 25, 2012 – this review is long overdue. Note: Carnage is (still) currently out in UK cinemas.

Carnage’s genesis from Yasmina Reza’s play Le Dieu de carnage (literally The God of Carnage) is evident from early on: although it opens (and ends) with a wide shot outdoors – a sunny meadow in a New York park, the river in the background – the rest of the film is set within the confining walls of an apartment. But it is not just the place that is restricted, time is as well as the story takes place in real-time, over the course of a few hours one mid-afternoon. The limited time-place setting invokes both an immediacy and, in particular, a physicality of cinema that is not often seen – the last time I experienced anything like it was with Michael Haneke’s mind-twisting Funny Games (Austria, 1997). But let’s start with the story.

Shiny, happy people… for now.

Two sets of parents, Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) and Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) meet at the Longstreet home after an unfortunate incident – a squabble between their children that has led to one of boys being seriously injured. The meeting is intended as a civilised get-together to put the incident behind them, but things do not go quite as planned as a misplaced word (‘armed’) soon derails the polite conversation over apple-pear crumble into a verbal war with constantly shifting dynamics from which none of the parties is able to extract themselves.

Here the camera comes in: it impossibly entraps viewers as Alan and Nancy want to leave, but never make it more than one foot into the elevator. Film becomes a medium of solid walls. If at other times knowing no boundaries, transporting us to the furthest corners of the world – or even far out into the universe or to other galaxies -, in Carnage the camera frames us, mercilessly placing viewers in the middle of an increasingly explosive conflict in which the characters are forced to bare their real selves to the other couple as well as to each other, indeed, perhaps even to themselves.

Other than the tightly written script, Carnage owes its success to the superb ensemble cast. With fours Oscars wins and eight nominations between them, Foster, Winslet, Reilly and Waltz all put out stellar performances despite – or perhaps because of – intense filming conditions. All of them were required to “be on set all day, every day, throughout the shoot” (quote: Polanski) as they feature in every scene of the film.

Penelope, on one of her world-saving missions.

Foster’s character is the most recognisable one of the four. She plays Penelope, an upper middle-class New Yorker that fills her time with saving the world, oblivious to the fact that she is doing this more for herself – to assuage her own guilt over a comfortable existence – than for the actual victims of poverty and war. It’s a character that borders on stereotype, which is not to say that Foster does not play the role well. Her increasingly obvious neuroticism is convincing, it’s just that Penelope’s actions and reactions are the most predictable of them all, simply because we know people like her.

We also know people like Alan, Nancy and Michael, but they are not quite so easy to figure out. Nancy, at the outset, wears her polite-Manhattanite-mom mask well and follows the protocol of her exalted social circle as we would expect, but leaves us gasping (and howling with laughter) with her vomit-over-the-art-books scene. Did she really just do that? Oh yes, she did. As for the two men, there is Michael, Penelope’s more down-to-earth other half, who initially seems to fit the mould of the somewhat overweight, cuddly teddybear husband that is never fazed by anything or anyone, least of all his neurotic wife, yet becomes surprisingly willing to air his dirty laundry in front of two complete strangers. The most interesting persona, however, is Christoph Waltz’s Alan. He refuses to play along from the start, calling out the bullshit that is spouted by everyone in their game of social pretense, even if that requires declaring his own son a ‘maniac’ (a declaration he is happy to make because “it’s true”, shell-shocking parenting-by-the-books Penelope). He also constantly interrupts the conversation with the faux pas of picking up calls on his blackberry, the phone itself in a role so central as it hasn’t been seen since David Mamet’s Oleanna.

Character No. 5: Mr. Blackberry.

Indeed, with the limited setting and number of characters, there are quite a few parallels we could draw between Carnage and Oleanna: neither the former (in play or film form) nor the latter (again, neither as play or film) features an event-filled plot but each uses the power of language to offer a candid social critique while simultaneously highlighting how powerful or even dangerous words can be. There is, however, a significant difference between the two works. Although Carnage relentlessly chips away at social façades, revelations made are unlikely to have a permanent impact. The words uttered in Oleanna irreversibly and cruelly change the lives of individual people, but the characters of Carnage will simply wake up horribly hung over and embarrassed the next day, perhaps intent on avoiding one another in the future, yet with their masks right back on. It’s a (projected) ending that mirrors what probably happens in real life, but it leaves less of an impact than Oleanna’s fateful conclusion and ultimately makes me doubt that Carnage, as a film among many, will stick with me.

Overall verdict: Carnage is a darkly entertaining film that – for a few hours at least – tears away social façades.

Rating: 9/10

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