Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Roman Polanski's CARNAGE

When you hear the title Carnage, you might think something else, something really bloody and gooey and full of teeth and maybe that character from Marvel too (technically he's part of Spider-Man, don't ask me if he's in the new Marc Webb film in 2012).  But here, Carnage is what it is - a one act play adaptation.  But hey, if anyone's gonna do Carnage, give it to Polanski....

Roman Polanski's film of Yasmin Reza's play 'God of Carnage' would be just a simple (though uniformly strong) showcase for BIG acting talents doing BIG set-pieces, if not for the fact that the director has assembled some of the best and sharpest actors on the planet who speak English, and that for this material this director is not the correct choice, he's the only one (maybe Mike Nichols also comes to mind, thouguh that may be only because the story/characters resemble on the outside 'Virginia Woolf 2.0').  Polanski got his start making these kind of films - by this I refer to Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and Cul-de-sac, these "bottle" films that primarily take place in a confined location, only a few characters and some real mounting, dreadful, nail-biting inducing suspense as the audience is privy to the stripping away of not so much humanity but the facade of it, it's rules.

Sure, you can come on it, have some cobbler, fuck my wife... oh wait, last one was the wrong movie...

 Carnage is the Polanski I know and love from that period (and a smaller extent Death and the Maiden), tackling a 21st century domestic story of two sets of parents - one middle class (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), the other upper-middle (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet, all ideally cast, though Waltz at first a slight surprise following so many villainous roles) - they meet to discuss an altercation between their two songs in a park.  More to the point (which we see in a swiftly brutal prologue as the opening shot of the film, one of only two exteriors in the film), one swung at the other with a club.

Why exactly did it happen?  Were they just kids being kids getting in a fight?  There is a little getting-to-the-bottom-of-this conversation about it, but not quite at the start.  At first, as civilized homo sapiens would, they're polite and cordial, and Reilly even asks Winslet and Waltz for coffee and apple cobbler (with some pears in it) as they're about ready to leave.  It's revealed one son wouldn't want the other in his gang (the word 'snitch' is used), and just watching this conversation part, where Waltz and Reilly talk about how much fun it was to be part of a gang or to be the leader when they were kids ("Like Ivanhoe!" Waltz exclaims) it's clear, not just from the womens' reactions but in general: this will not go well.  At all.

You said WHAT about Michel Gondry?  We both don't approve..

The underlying current of Carnage, made more than clear in the second half of the film, is that beneath the mask of human decency, of the 'thank yous' and 'sorrys' and 'please' and so on, people are vicious bastards, and class just makes up for part of the facade (another inspiration may-hap in terms of vicious social satire - Bunuel, specifically The Exterminating Angel where people arrive, and no one leaves).  How much have we come to as a species where swinging a stick at one another like the apes in 2001 was common practice?  Polanski and Reza seem to say, 'Not much, we're (kind of) afraid.'

It's a current through almost all of Polanski's films, even the seemingly sweet Knife in the Water where carnal lust is brimming at the surface and spills over in the third act.  Here, Polanski, via Reza, takes this into cringe-worthy comedy.  Dark comedy really, like 'Are they going to go THERE!' levels.  Indeed, while not as hilarious, if I was told Larry David wrote this as an unused bottle episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I'd believe you.


And though Polanski as director, in terms of style, keeps things moving well and gets coverage that amps things up psychologically past its static setting (watch as Waltz is smaller in frame as Reilly is more in close-up across the room and when the latter accuses the former of something about his job, Waltz comes into frame, menacingly), not to mention the switch from steady tri-pod to uneasy hand-held in the 2nd hald, the cast is King (and Queen) here.

Good GOD, do they get to go at these characters!  I'm sure they would say it's all on the page, but I'm not so sure the could or would have played it this way on the stage (albeit occasionally Winslet does play 'to the balcony' as the saying goes, but this is part of the outrageous delight in the performance).  Waltz is less an intimidating Nazi here than just a prime example of 21st century doltishness, who can't be pulled away from his Blackberry and has a very particular (and all-too-common really) view of women.

Yeah, put me anywhere near Inglorious Basterds 2 and I'll punch you in the metaphorical uterus

Reilly gets to play it mostly straight as, at first, he seems to be the 'nicest' ion the room, until he snaps "I'm a short tempered SON ON A BITCH!" and rushes to the scotch - a performance like this from him shows his range from 1 to 10.  Ditto for Winslet, who is scabrously funny, even as she at one point has to vomit due to 'nerves' (and was it that cobbler?), and balances off Foster who gets to play the uber-liberal "with no sense of humor".  Then these women break down and go off - baby, watch out!

The film may piss off/rub-off the wrong way on some viewers.  This is the stuff of lets-make-em-squirm entertainemt where words, the tone of how things are said, and how one person just takes things too far when the argument seems to be over and people can move on, not to mention other bodily functions, come out in a fury.  I don't know how people will react, though the audience I was with let out gasps of laughter throughout.

To anarchy!
To me, it's a perverse joy seeing this director at the top of his game within a limited milieu: it makes no bones it's based off a play, and except for closing/opening shots it wouldn't have it any other way.  Urban comfort, the battle of the sexes, brutality in Africa, even a poor little hamster are not spared.  Carnage, through spectacularly good acting and existential horror, says 'You're ALL sons of bitches, the lot of you, but you have your moments, if you try.  Maybe.'

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