'Carnage': Polanski's Nasty, Playful Satire
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Roman Polanski really thrives on confined spaces. As a director, I mean. In fact, his first feature, "Knife in the Water," made in his sort-of native Poland in 1962, is set almost entirely on a pleasure boat owned by a quarrelling couple. As a charming young drifter exacerbates the tension between them, the cabin of the craft seems to close in. Polanski manipulates the claustrophobic effect masterfully via his choice of angle and lens, and his editing choices. Similarly, his first English-language picture, 1966's "Repulsion," largely sticks to the increasingly squalid London apartment where the film's heroine loses her mind. Even more expansively set Polanski pictures, like his hits "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown," contain sequences in which the walls seem to be closing in on the characters and even the viewers, and his film prior to this one, "The Ghost Writer," got a lot of mileage out of cinematically manipulating the planes of the bleakly ultra-modernist beach house in which most of its action is set.
Polanski's new film, "Carnage," was adapted by Polanski and Yasmina Reza from Reza's play "God of Carnage," and in terms of confinement it's practically catnip for Polanski, because it's almost entirely set in a Brooklyn Heights (or so) apartment and the elevator foyer immediately outside of it. That foyer is frequently visited by Alan and Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), the upscale couple whose little boy has smacked the front teeth out of the mouth of another little boy, whose parents, the somewhat funkier Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) inhabit that apartment. How they keep getting lured back into the apartment to complete the drama is one portion of the amusing cinematic trickery that "Carnage" delights in, although it's certainly bound to irritate some literal-minded viewers.
After agreeing that the incident in which their children were involved was indeed deplorable, and indulging in the expected "No, my fault/No my fault" prevarications which the piece presumes are practically de rigueur in the interactions of the contemporary urban bourgeoisie, pinpricks of mutual condescension and annoyance begin to make their marks, followed by precisely timed explosions of rudeness and outbursts of very incorrect sentiments. Waltz's character is the can't-be-bothered would-be wheeler-dealer, Winslet's the uptight would-be model parent, Reilly's the proud-to-be-a-regular-Joe quasi-dolt, and Foster's the inversion of Winslet's uptightness, very earnest where Winslet is very proper.
The tart dialogue they bounce off one another is the stuff of pretty good -- that is, entertaining but maybe a little facile -- satire. If you pay too much of perhaps the wrong kind of attention, you do note that the tartness in and of itself (and perhaps necessarily) underscores the limitations of merely pretty good satire as a form. Which is to say that we kind of understand when and maybe how each character's pretensions are going to be punctured; the various reversals are a little, well, telegraphed. There's a little bit of a paradox inherent in a piece that aspires to aggressively tweak its target audience's collective sense of propriety and/or social grace while at the same time satisfying said audience's expectations of entertainment. Which may in fact be precisely the point ... only the film doesn't take things that far.
Instead, "Carnage" is satisfied to be an absolutely virtuoso piece of cinema craft, and to give its excellent cast multiple opportunities to show off their comedic chops, which are considerable. The combination of filmmaking chops and theatrical craft help give "Carnage" a rush that makes it seem even shorter than its already scant barely 80-minute running time. There's a hell of a lot to appreciate, for instance, in the way Winslet's physical stature mutates over the course of the film, relative to her character's condition and/or attitude. It's also pretty funny to see Foster ever-so-slightly sending up her own real-life persona as The Only Sane Actress in Hollywood.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.