Things Fall Apart, by David Bax
Roman Polanski’s Carnage is based on a play. It’s possible you already knew that but, if you didn’t, it would be clear to you pretty early on. Polanski made no major changes to the almost entirely single room setting of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (with the exception of the opening and closing segments). Yet in many minor but vital ways, this is an absolute work of cinema.
The action kicks off when one boy hits another boy in the mouth with a stick at the park. The parents of the offending child, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Penelope (Kate Winslet) visit the tastefully appointed bourgeois Brooklyn apartment of the other child’s parents, Michael (John C. Reilly) and Nancy (Jodie Foster), to discuss how amends can be made. What ensues is a detailed portrait of the breakdown of civility among this group of mannered, upper middle class adults as they become increasingly drunk and hostile.
Firstly, it is important to state that this is a surprisingly and uproariously hilarious film. It’s not funny in that smart person movie way wherein people laugh more as a demonstration to their peers that they get the jokes than as a reflexive reaction (though I did like Midnight in Paris). Rather, it is a true comedy that will make you laugh out loud despite yourself on multiple occasions. Someone standing outside the screening room where I saw Carnage might have imagined we were watching a Judd Apatow film. And one of the good ones, at that.
Though the comedy is large and brash, Polanski complements it with filmic techniques that ground the action at first and then gradually amplify it till the movie threatens to become as unhinged as its characters. By incrementally changing the lighting as it becomes later in the day and by slowly increasing the number of close-ups and Dutch angles, the director seems to change the geography of the apartment. He also adds a new layer to the story with those opening and closing shots, which take place in the park. My understanding is that they are wholly invented for the film. I can’t imagine it being as effective without them. It’s the cinematic additions that elevate the story.
These are meticulously employed tactics. They may not always be subtle but each of them has clearly been considered carefully. The same cannot be said for the performances. Though they begin from the assured place you would expect from such a stellar cast, each of them seems to forget to embody her or his character as things fall apart, instead retreating to mere personifications of the viewpoints they represent in the script.
That script is partly to blame for the problems, as well, but the actors aren’t helping matters. As we near the end of the film, there is far too much screaming and unconvincing drunk acting. When combined with the increasingly gonzo structure of the work – which would have been enough on its own – the result is shrill.
At its best, Carnage is a very good film. As the booze, sweat and even vomit start to flow onscreen, Polanski leaves behind any hidebound notions of taste to delirious and almost misanthropic effect. I was briefly reminded of a scene near the end of Ilya Khrzhanovskiy’s 4 in which a group of old women laugh and eat and pour liquor across each other’s disrobed forms. Both that film and this one are disgustingly visceral reminders that the human body and, by extension, humans themselves can be repulsive. It’s gross, yes, but it’s refreshingly full of life after the director’s last entry, the cold and tedious The Ghost Writer. And after all, despite its many problems, the whole thing is only 80 minutes long.