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Roman Polanski has often been at his best in close quarters — the small yacht of Knife in the Water, the Warsaw ghetto of The Pianist, the house in The Ghost Writer, the apartments in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant — so it should be no surprise that he’s right at home examining the venality of the human condition in the living room of the Brooklyn apartment that serves as the setting for Carnage. Snappy, nasty, deftly acted and perhaps the fastest paced film ever directed by a 78-year-old, this adaptation of Yasmina Reza‘s award-winning play God of Carnage fully delivers the laughs and savagery of the stage piece while entirely convincing as having been shot in New York, even though it was filmed in Paris for well-known reasons.
Following its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and North American bow as the opening night attraction at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 30, the Sony Classics release should do nicely with quality-seeking audiences upon its domestic launch in mid-December.
The title isn’t the only thing that’s been changed moving from stage to screen. First performed in Zurich in 2006, then in Paris in 2008 under its original title Le Dieu du carnage, Reza’s short one-act was translated by Christopher Hampton for its English-language debut later that year in London, where it won the Olivier Award as best new play. The Broadway production, which starred James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Hardin, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis, won the 2009 Tony Award and stands as the third-longest-running play of the 2000s. However, the Hampton translation has here been dropped in favor of a revision credited to the playwright and Polanski; a few new lines make themselves felt, but the overall effect is essentially the same.
Onstage, the action pivots on an incident that is frequently mentioned but not seen: The injuring of one boy by another in playground fight. The film, however, opens with a striking shot of a Brooklyn waterfront park with the East River and the skyline of lower Manhattan in the background. Two boys (one of them played by the director’s son Elvis) engage in combat, with one of them hitting the other with a stick, resulting in not inconsiderable injuries.
In their tasteful, comfortable apartment nearby, the aggrieved parents, Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) are hosting the parents of the aggressive kid, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) in a gesture intended to paper over any problems and forestall potential legal unpleasantries. The situation is hardly comfortable for either family but, after all, they’re civilized folks, aren’t they, able to rise above vengeful instincts and base emotional responses to intelligently resolve any issues.
Not bloody likely. At a glance flintier and less touchy-feely than their unwanted new acquaintances, Alan and Nancy are impatient to depart from the outset, keeping their coats on (it appears to be a brisk autumn day outside) and hoping to wind things up quickly. More than once, they go through the motions of saying goodbye and head for the elevator, and Polanski has fun taking them to the brink of escaping before pulling them back in.
In the course of polite chit-chat, they get to know each other superficially; Michael sells decorative hardware, Penelope struggles with highfalutin books on subjects like Darfur, Alan is a corporate lawyer and Nancy is an investment broker. The sense of decorum is threatened every so often by sensitivities over semantics, including offhand references about one boy or the other as a bully, snitch or whatnot, moral posturing at some moments and irrepressible insults at others. Even more grating is Alan’s constant yacking on his cell phone, with most of the decipherable talk having to do with legal cases in which he advises stone-walling and holding tough.
The basic dramatic format of bright, seemingly well-adjusted people eventually baring their teeth, claws and souls in the course of an alcohol-fueled encounter is familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with modern theater; call it the “Virginia Woolf” syndrome. Here, the get-together starts with coffee and various sweets, the booze not getting served until well past the half-way point, some time after Nancy has projectile vomited right in the middle of Penelope’s proper and pristine living room.
This latter incident, the most startling bit of physical business in the piece and by far the funniest when witnessed live, illuminates one of the principal differences in impact between the stage and film versions. In the theater, because of the group dynamics and because rarely, if ever, has such a thing ever been seen in a Broadway play before, the voluminous wretching by a beautiful and composed woman comes out of nowhere, to stunning effect; the audience remains rattled for a minute or two at least. On film, one is more aware of Nancy becoming queasy and the sight of vomit flying through the air is less of a novelty.
Similarly, onstage, Alan’s constant telephone conversations are mostly kept on the background while other characters prattle on. Here, Polanski too often abandons group compositions in favor of close-ups of Alan on the phone, an unnecessary choice since the content of his calls is not important; it’s just the fact that he rudely keeps taking them.
Once Michael starts pouring generous portions of Scotch, the inhibitions drop and, over the last half-hour, things degenerate to the point where these fine upstanding folk are calling each other criminals and murderers. Of course, actors love these sorts of opportunities to pop off and seeing such a different cast than played it on Broadway is amusing and instructive.
The heights of theatrical histrionics hit by Penelope are not the sort of thing one normally associates with Jodie Foster, but the spectacle of her frustration boundaries being passed provides its own source of interest and amusement, one that reflects directly upon her marriage to Michael. The most jarring aspect of the casting is imagining Foster and Reilly physically as a couple; it just doesn’t compute. Add to that, Reilly’s decibel level, especially in the early-going, seems two or three times higher than for the other three, which throws things off at times. But when the character is eventually revealed as a boor, Reilly seems right on the money.
Winslet abandons any idea of providing Nancy with a genuine demure side, pushing the character’s dissatisfactions to the surface perhaps to early. Waltz, on the other hand, gives the distracted Alan any number of shadings that give a vibrant new definition to perhaps the most elusive character in the piece. Overall, the thespian advantage would have to go to Broadway, but the cast here nonetheless holds its own and puts the characters across with force and definition.
Dean Tavoularis’ apartment set is a gem, tastefully but not preciously decorated, just cramped enough to prevent the characters from getting away from one another but not so much as to be claustrophobic. Pawel Edelman’s camerawork is nimble and clear. The views of Brooklyn outside the windows are entirely realistic, the light flowing in from them ever-so-subtlety softening from afternoon brightness to the encroaching darkness that will consume the city and the souls of these four inhabitants.
Venue: Venice Film Festival, Competition
Release: Opens December 16 (Sony Classics)
Production: SBS Productions
Cast: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski, based on the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza
Producer: Said Ben Said
Director of photography: Pawel Edelman
Production designer: Dean Tavoularis
Costume designer: Milena Canonero
Editor: Herve de Luze
Music: Alberto Iglesias
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