Irony lies at the heart of Roman Polanski’s latest film and thankfully it is all intentional. Firstly, there is the fact that the director himself made a film set in Brooklyn and about American characters but shot it in France due to his fugitive status from America. Secondly the polite fronts that the two couples at the centre of the story show to one another upon their initial meeting are anything but genuine, their spoken words contradicting their true feelings and opinions which later rise to the surface. Thirdly, there is the incongruity between what we expect to happen and what actually happens in the simple but deeply layered plot. And to take the absurdity even further, the original play which Carnage is based on, God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, was set in Paris and Polanski chose to set his version in Brooklyn but shot it in Paris.
The two couples are Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) who are brought together due to an incident between their sons, resulting in one boy losing some teeth. The meeting is an attempt to resolve the issues in a civilised manner but as minutes tick by, cracks begin to show and each person cannot help but reveal their inner monster eventually.
Other than the bookends of the film that show from a distance the park where the childish incident occurs, Carnage is set in the confined singular location of the Longstreet’s trendy Brooklyn apartment with only these four characters. The film could have easily failed due to this play formula but Polanski masterfully makes it work. The sheer simplicity could have been unsuccessful as a film but the director cleverly keeps the slow awkward pace alive with interesting shot choices and an abundance of close ups. The brilliantly realistic set design never once feels like a set and the script is pacey and intelligent.
But of course it is the fantastic acting from four incredible actors that really makes this film work. Winslet is on top form as Nancy, a successful investment broker who politely accepts a spontaneous invitation to stay for coffee and doomed apple and pear cobbler from the more liberal and bohemian Longstreets after a shaky beginning and a few whiskies later really lets her guard down. Waltz is perfectly cast as the arrogant corporate lawyer who is constantly tied to his phone dealing with business rather than dealing with the issue at hand. Foster’s Penelope is an extremely uptight writer who is very serious but still wants to please everybody in the process and Reilly’s Michael is a kitchenware salesman who generally abides by his wife for an easier life. All the actors successfully capture the awkwardness of the initial meeting and believably portray the decline of manners. It is the sheer believability that allows Carnage to become so absorbing for the duration, never becoming predictable or dull, and there will be something in there that everyone will be able to identify with, be it the polite pretences we uphold in the presence of strangers or the concerns with either parenting or marriage that these characters are facing. As secrets are disclosed and guards are let down carnage ensues and it is the reactions of each of the characters to one particular ‘disclosure’ that are so astutely written and acted out.
The film is in real time and at 80 minutes it is just the right length. There is perhaps not enough actual carnage and Foster’s incessant crying does become farcical, her character going beyond annoying. These are not necessarily likeable characters though as the whole film is about the metaphorical primitive monsters inside us. It depicts the facades that people put up and reveals the catalysts for the disintegration of these fake exteriors.
Carnage is a satire and therefore plays on the agonisingly awkward, much like a Todd Solondz film, and there are plenty of cringeworthy and funny moments although perhaps not quite enough of the latter. The mobile phone situation with Waltz’s character is rather clichéd but you get the impression that it is supposed to be. The ever shifting dynamics between the characters keeps the film flowing and it is an extremely well-observed and fascinating piece that I will definitely revisit. For such a simple story it is full of surprises and what could be more interesting than an exploration of the human condition through the eyes of Polanski?
The extras are comprised of detailed interviews with each of the actors and a theatrical trailer.
Carnage is unleashed on DVD and Blu-ray on 18th June 2012.
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski
Stars: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly.
Runtime: 80 mins
Country: France, Germany, Poland, Spain