Film & TV

Polanski’s ‘Carnage’ at the New York Film Festival

Film & TV

Polanski’s ‘Carnage’ at the New York Film Festival


A man enters a room and faces the audience. He starts speaking. It becomes clear that the scene is not going to change, that we’re all going to be stuck there in a state of mounting claustrophobia for the next ninety minutes. It’s a play. Throw in a camera, and you’ve got a film.

Except with a film, nobody has to feel guilty about walking out.

The God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza‘s hit play of 2006, had all the elements of a walker-outer. Two couples meet to discuss a conflict between their sons at school and end up ripping each other new assholes. It was a tale of politeness gone wrong and political correctness gone bad. It was about stripping away the layers of gentility and revealing the beast of the system, the god of the machine. Violence. Chaos. Carnage.

The film adaptation was inevitable.

So who exactly is to blame for what Carnage the film became: Reza, or Polanski?

We could blame Polanski–and let’s face it, we always do. But in the case of Carnage, he may be an innocent bystander. The premise is just that silly.
A battle of the ‘classes’ soon reverts into a battle of the sexes, with all the trappings. A workaholic husband’s attachment to his cellphone mirrors a wife’s attachment to her make-up bag. It’s crudely traditional. The men talk about the horror of having children. The women talk about the horror of having husbands–hissy fits follow, scotch and cigars for the men, screaming and vomiting for the women. Is this the dread spiral of a Sirkian nightmare? Or is it boring?

I mean, it’s not boring, really. It’s extremely entertaining, if not exactly intelligent. And it’s well done, the cast is excellent. Jodie Foster’s neck alone, which delivers most of her performance, deserves an Oscar for its efforts. Though she herself gets some choice lines, as when, accused of caring more about her ego than Africa, inhales with indignation, and, hand on her chest, screams,

‘You don’t know anything about suffering in Afric-aaaa!”

The classic cry of the white woman who glories in taking offense, and in whose rage at the spectacle of remote suffering she finds a way to escape the guilt of privilege. In Foster’s character, the gaping flaws of a generation come alive, the terror of a well-educated, politically-conscious but consciously ineffectual person who is forced to stare into the naked face of apathy. The others are drawn plainly as savages in some way or other. The corrupt lawyer (Christoph Waltz) who believes in a ‘God of Carnage’–in other words, believes in the validity of kids beating each other up. The ‘self-made man’ (John C. Reilly) with a working class sensibility, who cites John Wayne and Ivanhoe as models of being. The lawyer’s wife (Kate Winslet) who, rather than deal with internal anxiety, vomits all over her host’s coffee table at the first signs of amicable disagreement.

Disturbing it is, in a familiar way. Disappointing it is not, if you hadn’t first been disappointed by the play and all the acclaim it’s gotten. Do we need to know that we’re not civilized? Not really. Anyone who rides the subway is aware of the fact. One can see where, during the play’s initial run, it may have been refreshing to see. However in it’s latest incarnation the momentum of the play is lost in the awareness that nothing really dangerous can actually occur. None of the actors can transmit their rage powerfully enough to break through the fourth wall, and at the end of it we know we’re all going to go home safe.

Maybe it’s a criticism of the tamer nature of the cinema, but it must be admitted that for a play all about violence, that kind of thing is a bit of a turn off.

The New York Film Festival begins September 30 and runs until October 16. Stay tuned for continued coverage.