Carnage

CARNAGE. Starring: Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly. Directed by Roman Polanski. Rated M (Coarse language and mature themes). 79 min.

This is an American black-comedy based on the play “God of Carnage” by French playwright, Yasmina Reza, who also wrote the brilliant comedy, “Art”.

Two school boys get into a fight in a park on the way home from school. One hits the other with a stick, and the boys’ parents meet in a high-rise Brooklyn apartment to discuss the matter. The parents of the boy who wielded the stick are Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet), and the parents of the boy who was hit are Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly, and Jodie Foster). Everyone intends the meeting to be short, but unexpected events manage to prolong the visit. The film moves relentlessly from civility to psychological duelling as one set of parents attacks the other, before turning inward onto themselves. With the help of a little alcohol, the character flaws of all four people are laid bare, and the warfare among them becomes intense. The couples attack each other mercilessly, and the film ironically concludes with Nancy and Penelope saying this is the worst day of their lives, while their children reconcile, and go back to playing with each other again.

This is black comedy with a decided edge, and Roman Polanski directs the film characteristically to show human beings on the descent to self-destruction. Polanski gives the film a closed-in look where drama supersedes comedy, but his direction is precise. Unfortunately, there is nothing remotely playful about the interactions of the four main protagonists, who engage repeatedly in debasement. They dislike each other and can’t escape from the confrontations they themselves have manipulated, or engineered. There are no heroes in this battle. No one wins and everybody loses, and only occasionally does the delicate balance among the four people look to become unsettled.  Overall, the acting is full-on, and the tensions build up relentlessly as the conflicts among the four adults visibly increase.

This is not a pleasant movie, and it is strongly reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s “Exterminating Angel” (1962) where privileged, argumentative guests are invited to dinner and find that they are totally unable to leave the room they have entered. The same claustrophobic feeling that characterized Bunuel’s classic movie, colours this movie as well. In this film, the Cowans attempt to leave the Longstreet’s apartment three times, but can’t. Conflict keeps drawing them back, and all four adults remain isolated, and return to bickering once more with each other.

The acting from all four parents is excellent, and they impressively bring Yasmina Reza’s work to the screen, but Reza’s words never achieve the absolute hilarity of “Art”.  Beneath the surface appearance of good manners, lies raw aggression and the film makes the point, as the play does, that complacency and civility can be expected to turn quickly to innate aggression when the going gets tough. There is nothing moral in the argument that aggression wins the day, and the film sets out the false premise that true honesty will always reveal itself underneath objectionable behaviour. The film’s treatment of this thesis is unconvincing.

The Cowans and the Longstreets represent people, who are hard to identify with. The movie additionally carries biting criticism of the social class they represent, and small differences in attitude and behaviour are made to look very significant for what we might think about people as human beings. However, Roman Polanski directs the film in a way that asserts definite mastery of stress, and entrapment, which he illustrated so well and darkly in films like “Repulsion (1965)”, and “Rosemary’s Baby (1968)”.

This is an involving film, not meant really to entertain in any light-hearted way, and it is well-directed, well-acted, and surprisingly intense.  There are occasional moments of hilarity in its sharp script, but this is not a film for those, who like hanging onto, and reinforcing, relationships that matter.

Peter W Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Sony Pictures.

Out March 1, 2012.