Sunday, 5 February 2012
A sharp and bitterly funny attack on middle class social mores and attitudes, Roman Polanski's 'Carnage' is the kind of movie I'm easily smitten by: a tight little film which primarily takes place on one location (in real-time, no less), peddles deft social satire and zips by in a welcome 79 minutes. It's to the veteran director's credit that it never feels paired down or non-cinematic, despite being based on a stage play: French playwright Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage. Tight close-ups develop a sense of claustrophobia and Polanski's camera seems to relish the few occasions where the characters nearly escape their setting, eagerly rushing out into the hall and returning to the apartment with an air of resignation.
The film hinges around an event briefly glimpsed (from a distance) during the opening credits as one young boy hits another with a stick in a New York park. Then, in one intense, unbroken scene that ultimately seems to find equivalence in the actions of adults and children, the rest of the film takes place in the apartment of the assaulted boy's parents - Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) - who have invited the other boy's parents - Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) - over to discuss about what happened between their kids. It doesn't take long before the mood shifts from one of reconciliation to recrimination (and back again) as the couples turn on each other and feud amongst themselves.
Michael's overbearing attempts to play the good host and considerate husband conceal deep resentment and nihilism that are soon exposed (memorably with the bitter revelation that his wife dresses him as a liberal). Penelope is far less concerned with acting "civilised" and resolving differences than she is with asserting her moral and parenting supremacy over the Cowans. Alan is hyper-rational (or, depending on your point of view, cynical) to the point of seeming cold, aloof and more than a little rude - taking work calls throughout their meeting to the annoyance of everybody. Nancy seems to be the only one entering the situation in genuine good faith - something that's tested by extreme feelings of nausea as a result of the slightest confrontation and, later, by some potent Scotch.
The whole thing is as much about the futility of trying to bring order to chaos as it is about peering voyeuristically underneath the veneer of the characters sense of well-bred respectability. Whilst all of them interact in interesting and ever-shifting ways, the central confrontation is really between Alan, who believes in the inevitability of animalistic, amoral behaviour, and Penelope, who believes with absolute certainty that those in need should be saved and those who do wrong must be punished (according to her own uncompromising standards). Yet these extreme points of view are as easily compromised as anything else: when his phone is broken Alan is less indifferent about human cruelty and suffering, whilst Penelope is more concerned with cleaning up her coffee table books than Nancy's well-being after she suffers a fit of vomiting.
Each of the four actors are superb and wring the most from the script's faultlessly well-observed, caustic humour, though Waltz is again the stand-out performer. Several times in the last year the Academy Award-winning Austrian has been the bright spot in sub-standard films, but here he steals the show in more exalted company. His Alan is deliciously cruel and somehow intensely likable with it. You certainly want to see him get the better of Foster's shrill and conceited Penelope. Winslet gives a very subtle and believable performance, in spite of being given some of the more extreme stuff to do (throwing up and playing drunk). Reilly's innate likability and sensitivity - as the perennially put-upon schlub - are also well deployed and cleverly subverted, providing some of the funniest moments.
'Carnage' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.