Carnage: Polanksi’s Version of Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award Winning Play

Though 78, Roman Polanski has always looked, behaved, and directed like a much younger, more energetic man. In his latest feature, the entertaining social farce, Carnage, based on Yasmina Reza’s Tony-Award winning play, Polanski finds a suitable text for his darkly humorous and ironic sensibilities. One of Polanski’s thematic concerns has been the sudden unleashing forces of the id and their inevitable clash with forces of the ego and superego.


World-premiering at the Venice Film Fest, “Carnage” played at the Toronto Film Fest, and served as opening night of the New York Film Fest, September 30.   The lukewarm response by the audience (it was a poor choice to start the event) does not speak for the commercial prospects of  this Sony Christmas release.

Artistically, though, this is a very minor work in Polanski’s otherwise brilliant career, a film that still feels like a play, and suffers from several major flaws.  For starters, Jodie Foster is either miscast, misguided by the director,  or simply overacting.   Looking harsh, especially in close-ups, Foster may be too old to play the part of Marcia Gay Harden, who was brilliant on stage.    Moreover, there is no chemistry between her and John C. reilly, who plays her husband.

Polanski has always been known for his sharp intelligence in tackling a wide variety of genres and subjects. As a follow-up to the terrifically executed “The Ghost Writer,” “Carnage” is even more accessible, broader, and entertaining.  The text deliver a barrage of witty barbs in a rapid-fire tempo, which in moments recalls the pacing of  1930s and 1940s  screwball comedies (though not as brisk as Hawks’ “His Girl Friday,” starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, still the model for such pictures.

With the exception of Foster, the film boasts a superlative ensemble cast, which includes John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet (Oscar-winning actors except for Reilly, who’s Oscar-nominee), the film is well acted.  How will the Academy’s Acting Branch deal with the three performers, who are all leads!  (In” The Hours,” they found a way (an unfair one, to be sure) to elevate Nicole Kidman to the lead and to demote Julianne Moore to the supporting league, while disregarding the best performance in the picture, by Meryl Streep).

The shortest major movie you’re likely to see this year, “Carnage” is a brisk, brutal, nasty, wickedly funny dissection of bourgeois ethics and middle-class, suburban marriage—the kind of which has not seen or enacted with such ferocious detail since Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” the play and the  1966 Mike Nichols’ movie.

There are similarities between Albee’s play/Nichols’ movie.  both revolve around two married couples, both deal with issues of social class and inequality, both involve lots of drinking, and both contain major scene of vomiting by the younger woman (Sandy Dennis in 1966 and Kate Winslet in the new work, which is one of the two or three climaxes of “Carnage.” That said the two movies differ in one major respect: Carnage is a broad social farce, lacking the pathos and melodramatics of that 1966 picture.

Polanski the filmmaker and his new movie share on thing in common: His biological age is the feature’s running time (78 minutes).  Even at this length, “Carnage” feels too long; the last reel is particularly repetitive and disappointing, and the very ending too cute (spoiler alert: a shot of hamsters, which feature prominently in the plot).

As a director, Polanksi has always been extremely lucid and precise, deviating from the prevalent and expected conventions, no matter what the specific genre or subject matter of his features are.

Thus, what begins in “Carnage” as a polite discussion of a minor incident/accident between two school boys arguing and fighting gradually escalates into a full affront on nuclear marriage as an institution, bourgeois respectability as a phony facade, middle-class ethics, what the acceptable norms for behavior in public and private spaces.

Two pairs of parents meets to talk over in a presumably rational and civilized manner a seemingly “typical” incident at school, in which one of the children has hurt the other at a public park, Brooklyn Bridge Park to be exact, an incident that is not depicted explicitly on screen. Quite shrewdly, Polanski keeps his camera at a distance, and we see the boys arguing from a long shot, but never in close-up.

Indeed, the above event is just an excuse, a pretext for a deeper, more poignant probing of morals and mores. And as the meeting goes on, with the help of booze (good Cognac, which the women insist on sharing, to some disastrous results)), the parents become increasingly more relaxed, more childish, more inconsiderate, more nasty, barbarous and merciless about themselves, their partners, and their hosts. This is manifest in the exchange of verbal barbs, vomiting, foul language, and at the end, physical violence.

The logic of the play, whose English title “God of Carnage” is a much better one, was abbreviated for the movie. Originally, the French work was translated into English as “Lay Waste to England for Me.” The play was a success in its official French language, as well as in its numerous English and American productions.

The theatrical text is defined by a rapidly escalating chaos, one which devolves into theater of the absurd with unmanageable, uncontrollable proportions, all done in one claustrophobic setting, one room, offering “No Exit” for the characters –or viewers.

The play was shrewdly performed without intermission, and the four characters were always present on stage. Trying (not particularly successfully) to open up the play, Polanski moves the action from the living room to the kitchen to the bathroom to the hallway and the elevators, and so on.

He also grants his thespians too many close-up shots.  In most of these shots, Jodie Foster looks terrible, exhibiting an inconsistent make-up application. No one seems to have paid attention to the continuity of her looks, and so in the same scene she can appear with or without make-up!

Spoiler Alert:

The film ends in an ironic way, when the two arguing boys are seen socializing, again from a distance. This is followed by a shot of hamsters, which feature prominently in the plot.

Carnage is a minor, inconsequential work, not befitting the stature of Polanski as a major filmmaker, and not a good choice for opening night of a major festival.

Here is my ranking of the quartet of thespians

Christoph Waltz, A-

Kate Winslet, B+

John C. Reilly, B-

Jodie Foster, C+