‘There is such and such a relationship between a man and a woman. They are living in such and such a place. And here come the intruders.’ So Roman Polanski, interviewed in 1969, described the conception of Cul de Sac (1966), his favourite among his films.
The description could equally apply to the modest but typically excellent Carnage, based on the 2007 play God of Carnage by the French writer Yasmina Reza, which has had successful seasons on Broadway and the West End. Though shot in a Paris studio, Polanski’s film transfers the action to New York: a wordless opening sequence shows a dispute between two young boys in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which results in one of them losing a couple of teeth. The scene shifts to a nearby apartment where Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, as the parents of the victim, receive a visit from Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, as the parents of the aggressor. All four hope to settle the matter like civilised adults; instead, what develops is a struggle over various kinds of emotional and intellectual turf, including the meaning of ‘civilisation’ itself.
The film is a faithful adaptation of Reza’s slick comedy, though much of the non-verbal acting business between the lines – the gestures and glances of anger or complicity – would barely register on stage. Without being obtrusive about it, Polanski uses every cinematic trick at his command to increase tension: viewed through distorting wide-angle lenses, the characters appear to gain and lose stature from shot to shot.
Often Polanski will cut back and forth between two actors, then use a wider shot to supply a third perspective; soon the setting seems criss-crossed by lines of force, like strings in a cat’s cradle. The first half of the film relies almost entirely on static camera set-ups; towards the end there is an increasing amount of chaotic motion, as alcohol brings the characters ever closer to psychological and physical collapse.
Many will be aware that Polanski embarked on this project shortly after his release from house arrest in Switzerland in 2010. Given the consistency of his themes over the decades, it would be unwise to read too much into his choice of material; still, it may be worth noting that Reza’s play functions like a mock trial, one that suggests the difficulty of arriving at a just outcome even when the moral and factual issues seem beyond dispute.
In a quite literal sense, this is also a film about confinement: the visitors are always leaving their hosts’ apartment, but never manage to get further than the corridor just outside. Harking back to Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), this surrealist joke again belongs more to cinema than to theatre, where unity of place is a convention we accept without much thought.
Rather than trying to ‘open out’ the play, Polanski embraces its restrictions, which prompt the kind of repetition-with-variation that has always been his stock in trade. As the dialogue keeps shuffling through the same range of trivial topics, the characters seem increasingly hemmed in by their own fetishised possessions: a bowl of tulips, a coffee-table art book, a mobile phone. Other more enigmatic recurring touches – a red splotch on a page of sheet music, the digitally-recreated trains that pass by a window – might be taken as teasing reminders that everything in this pocket universe has been put there by the director.
Each member of the ensemble is given a chance to shine, but it is the casting of Waltz in particular that shifts the meaning of the material. Though his character bears the thoroughly Anglo-Saxon name of Alan Cowan, his drawling tones retain an unmistakable ‘foreign’ quality, audible in the rush of air that accompanies the fricatives in ‘disfigured’ and ‘brute force’, and in his nastily playful lingering on certain syllables, as if holding them up for inspection.
The most frankly cynical of the quartet, Alancould easily be viewed as Polanski’s representative, especially when he voices Reza’s apparent thesis: that beneath the veneer of civilisation it is a dog-eat-dog world. True to form, though, Polanski refuses to leave us with a clear-cut message, including the message of moral relativism: when Foster’s character insists that ‘the victim and the criminal are not the same’, this remains as persuasive as any other argument on offer.
Unexpectedly, Carnage is probably the most good-natured film Polanski has ever made: his men and women may be monstrous here as usual, but for once their antics seem meant to leave us more amused than appalled. There is even a happy ending, by my reckoning the first of his career. Which character deserves a second chance? You will have to wait for the credits to see.
Carnage (M), directed by Roman Polanski, screenplay by Polanski and Yasmina Reza. 80 minutes. Released in Australia on 1 March.
CONTENTS: MARCH 2012