John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz star in the adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning 2009 play God of Carnage, about two Brooklyn couples who meet one evening because their kids were involved in a playground fight. Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” involves time spent by two married couples in a luxurious Manhattan condo, as afternoon fades into evening. The condo belongs to Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly).
Carnage is a film about four people who hate each other and are unable to leave the room. Sometimes they make it far as the door and once or twice to the lift, though on each occasion they are pulled back by the unfinished business of their exquisite loathing and bitter contempt. With this stealthy adaptation of the Yasmina Reza stage play, director Roman Polanski has rustled up a pitch-black farce of the charmless bourgeoisie that is indulgent, actorly and so unbearably tense I found myself gulping for air and praying for release. Hang on to your armrest and break out the scotch. These people are about to go off like Roman candles.
Jodie Foster and John C Reilly respectively play Penelope and Michael, a pair of bohemian Brooklynites whose 11-year-old son was attacked in the local park. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz (sporting a passable American accent) are Nancy and Alan, the parents of the culprit, supposedly visiting to make the peace. But with the battle lines drawn across the coffee table (replete with vase of tulips and Oskar Kokoschka art book) we swiftly realise that there are to be no heroes in this war: no one to rally behind and urge on to victory. Not passive-aggressive Penny or the blusteringly insensitive Michael, who blithely admits to having thrown his daughter’s beloved hamster out on the street “as though it were a sewer rat”. And certainly not the brittle, mean-spirited Nancy, or Alan, a cold-blooded, misogynist lawyer on whom the movie lavishes all the best lines.
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.
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. In their tasteful, comfortable apartment nearby, the aggrieved parents, Michael and Penelope are hosting the parents of the aggressive kid, Alan and Nancy.
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. 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.
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