In Carnage, Roman Polanski transforms a New York apartment into a battlefield
By Hannah Patterson
Social mores have long been a staple of theatre and heritage cinema, less often a topic in contemporary film. Carnage, based on Yasmina Reza’s hugely successful, award-winning play God of Carnage, is set to change that trend. A brutally funny, excoriating examination of what happens when the masks we wear in polite society slip, it is a film that’s sure to garner prizes for its A-list cast and director Roman Polanski.
The premise is simple. During an incident in a park, one child injures another, badly enough to require dental treatment. The parents of the accused (Kate Winslet andChristoph Waltz) have now come to visit the parents of the victim ( Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) at their Brooklyn apartment to discuss the ‘crime’.
Proceedings start well and, despite some understandable tension, the tone is civil. No one wants to apportion blame, of course, though responsibility for the act must be taken. Perhaps if an apology can be made, if the boy could be made to see what he’s done wrong, then the matter could be closed? Yet the underlying insinuation – if your child behaves badly then you must be bad parents – is clear and cannot go unchallenged. Pretty soon, the polite veneer is stripped away.
Waltz is impressively brash as Alan, the bullish, egotistical lawyer who clearly has no time for these ‘liberal’ do-gooders, either the passive-aggressive Veronica (a revelatory Foster), who’s working on a book about Darfur, or her spineless, put-upon ‘Ordinary Joe’ of a husband (a humorously bewildered Reilly).
Alan’s sole focus is his mobile phone, which he answers loudly and frequently, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering, twin-setted wife (a wonderful, simmering Winslet, who is responsible for the film’s most shocking moment), and the outrage of his hosts.
Loyalties play out within the couples at first, but as argument mounts on argument, points of view shift and emotions flare, leading new allegiances to form, fall away and realign. Each of these characters is as flawed, as irritating, as wounded as the next; it’s no surprise that this high-calibre quartet wanted to play them, particularly under the direction of Polanski, the master of claustrophobic dramas.
Chamber piece films – focused exclusively on a few characters and set mainly in one location – often miss the mark. They can feel stagey, too theatrical or melodramatic, more like sitcom than cinema. However, Polanski knows exactly how to use the constrictive location to his advantage, so that it physically embodies his preoccupations and concerns.
It’s one of his metiers, as he proved with his feature debut Knife in the Water (1962), a psychological thriller with three characters set on a small boat. That film not only launched the director’s career on the international stage, it also drew comparisons with Hitchcock, who had previously mastered the unconventional chamber thriller with Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954).
Polanski’s second feature, Repulsion (1965), remains one of cinema’s great studies in loneliness and claustrophobia, while Rosemary’s Baby (1968) went further with its sinister takes on a restrictive domestic setting. And in The Tenant (1976), the last in what has been referred to as the director’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’ (which is arguably now a quartet), Polanski took on the titular role of a paranoid Polish immigrant living in Paris.
In Carnage, the director’s prowling camera roams the Brooklyn apartment (which is actually set in Paris, due to his history with US law), visually mining it for every dramatic possibility, racking up tensions, pinning characters in corners, up against doors and walls, squeezing them into bathrooms.
After all, they are trapped on this battlefield of class war, until they have a final resolution.Until their points have been acknowledged. Until, perhaps, they’ve actually learnt something about themselves.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas
Carnage screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 3 February