Polanski takes aim at the middle-classes in this funny but trifling comedy.
The trouble with Carnage, a beautifully performed adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s stage play (previously adapted from French into English by Christopher Hampton) is one of format and of cinematic space.
Here, two dyspeptic couples – one middle-class, the Longstreets, (played by John C Reilly and Jodie Foster) and one, the Cowans, (played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) professionally wealthy – battle it out in a tiny New York apartment over the course of 79 real time rat-a-tat minutes.
It’s all over a playground spat between their respective children, which threatens to rupture this adult world. Indeed, one particular parent, Reilly’s blue-collar Michael Longstreet, bemoans, "Children suck the life out of you and leave you old and empty!"
Which, for the most part, makes for compelling entertainment that sticks tightly to the structure of Reza’s play, and to the tonal shifts therein that swiftly ratchet tension, shift audience allegiances, and gradually turn initial character profiles inside out, sometimes literally. And then, deliciously, a few bites of home made apple 'n' pear cobbler washed down with Coca-Cola induce the project’s set-piece vomit scene.
No doubt the cast were attracted to the film precisely because of these enormous character arcs, and the chance, presumably, to work with the director, Polish maestro Roman Polanski. But this is not Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (itself an adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s stage play), which overcame its theatrical origins with seemingly vital political subtext and a nakedly obvious justification for the formal setting – in that instance, Sigourney Weaver’s Paulina had to remain indoors (on stage) with Ben Kingsley’s Dr Miranda because he was her hostage.
In Carnage, however, the need to remain in the Longstreets’ apartment is hugely problematic. The play is aware of this, and is forever teasing the audience with the prospect that the Cowans will march out in fury at any minute (at one point, they make it as far as the elevator lobby), before dragging them back in for more banter.
On stage, where the complicity between audience and text is enormous and unyielding, this is cute. On screen, where psychological realism is omnipresent – like God – it is infuriating.
Even after the vomiting sequence, the Cowans simply don’t leave. Not because they want to stay, or should stay, but because the film isn’t finished with the banter yet.
Which, in turn, has the knock-on effect of forcing undue focus on the exchanges themselves and asking the viewer to see greatness within. On stage, every pithy to and fro hints that the play is illuminating some sort of bestial individualism in all of mankind, but up there on screen these nicely fired zingers are nothing more than support beams for a pleasing parlour trick. No more. No less.
Polanski takes aim at the middle-classes again. Nice.
Funny. Acrid. And great vomit scene.
A short and trifling thing.