NYFF2011: Polanski’s ‘Carnage’ exquisitely bare-boned

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Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Roman Polanski (screenplay), Yasmina Reza (play)
2011, France

Carnage is a lean story about a group of people who cannot leave an apartment. Sometimes they manage to go into an alternate room, even as far as getting into an elevator, but somehow each person is pulled together again. As each character is drawn back into conflict, the audience too is compelled to latch onto the storyline and stay captivated until the very end. Adapted from Yasmina Reza’s stage play God of Carnage, Roman Polanski conjures up a mighty fleet of bourgeois antagonism that is just as indulgent as it is intensifying.

Jodie Foster and John C Reilly play Penelope and Michael, Brooklyn natives whose young son got his teeth knocked out in a park by a peer. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play Nancy and Alan, the parents of that peer, believably visiting to make amends. With feathers ruffled, a testimony of ‘who’s the victim and who’s the bully’ quickly becomes a winner-less battle of right and wrong. What appears to be a momentary visit to finalize a report of incidents, turns out to be a timely duo for the honorary title of righteousness. Unfortunately, a winner (paired or separated) cannot be crowned this entitlement of puffery. Not the anxious peace talker that is Penelope, or tempered pacifist that is Michael. Not even the smarmily arrogant Nancy or the crude and cold-blooded lawyer that is Alan. In the end all bets are off, the victims become antagonizing and the culprits become childish, even between couples. 

What makes this film near perfect is Polanski’s exquisite ability to emulsify any sights of fatty subplots that would normally project a storyline forward. There are no apartment fires, suspicious mail from a curious third party, even the children at hand are hardly seen besides brief moments in the introduction and epilogue. Nothing of that nature exists at all, for Carnage leaves no room for error. Instead what we get is a powerhouse film driven solely by the main conflict. It’s simple, precise, and neatly packaged for the audience to enjoy.

Simple as it may be, the acting presence magnifies the film’s threshold to its outer limits. Not only do we get all-star performances by an all-star cast, but it’s a prime example of filmmaking done right through the bare bone usage of script and dialogue. Dialogue is the truest progression of the storyline, as it twists the midpoint of the story and unforeseeably transforms each character into the person that they are attacking. A pivotal scene of the film comes about when Michael drops his guard and asks why the boys got into a fight. When replied by Alan that Michael’s son antagonized their own son for not being a part of a schoolyard gang, the question of right and wrong becomes indefinable.

With no correct resolution, fighting is meaningless, but the parents don’t see it that way. Thus, the tables get turned (a coffee table to be precise), and each parent tests their own limits for the sake of the dignity of their own child, but more presumably the dignity of their own parenting and persona. From vomit to battered flowers, finger pointing to jabs at the arm; childhood fowl play becomes more prevalent in the parents’ own behaviors more so than the children themselves. As the credits roll, we see the children making amends at the very same park the fighting commenced. As carnage manifests indoors, reparation formulates outdoors upon the blades of irony’s grassy fields. Sure we could get more of a resolution, which may be the film’s slightest argument, but is it really necessary? The film can surely be an hour or two longer, but at a mere eighty minutes, that’s all we really need to see in order to learn that carnage is a continuum within and around all of us.

Christopher Clemente

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