DIRECTED BY ROMAN POLANSKI
STARRING: JODIE FOSTER, KATE WINSLET, JOHN C. REILLY and CHRISTOPH WALTZ
Two couples become four individuals in ‘Carnage.’ Then they realign. Nothing amounts to anything. In a manner not quite unlike ‘Ken Park,’ which postulated inaction in action, we come face to face with a ‘plot device’ that has nothing to do with the story we’re told. I doubt if many of you would’ve watched ‘Ken Park,’ so I’ll take the liberty of throwing some light on the reference. ‘Ken Park’ starts with Ken Park shooting himself in the head at a Skate park. A diary is found in his bag by means of which we come to learn of his friends’ circle. The film then completes a full circle right up to the starting point where it’s revealed why Ken shot himself in the first place – an absurdist detail that serves to explain the film itself.
Ken Park was the ‘plot device’ of ‘Ken Park,’ which means he had nothing to do with the film other than contribute to it its very premise. Without him, there is no ‘Ken Park.’ As I remember mentioning in my review, we would’ve had something like ‘the Beautiful perversions of Randomly-colliding Teenagers’ instead. I’m not aware if that’s the title I used back then, but I’m sure you understand.
‘Carnage,’ the film, begins with ‘Carnage,’ the poster, and, not to mention, the plot summary. It’s a Yasmina Reza play adapted to the screen by Roman Polanski and Reza herself. I might not be too familiar with the work of Reza, but I can say I’ve had my share of exposure. I’ve watched ‘Art’ being staged twice by two different sets of people giving scope enough for me to rank them. And arrive at some definitive conclusions about Reza herself as a playwright.
Reza is postmodern with her writing. A different set of actors would translate to a different version of the play. The material is toneless and hostile for the most part with bursts of passion that render themselves salient on their own accord. ‘Art’ in all its glory was a deconstructive argument about Art in the outlooks of three close friends that inevitably served to deconstruct their friendship itself. Ivan, the impulsive, heart-on-sleeve simpleton cries in the end at the wreck of faith, kneeling in the midst of shambles from the damage the friends had caused to themselves. We’re taught about eventuality and our very own wicked, selfish contributions to it.
‘Carnage’ is a lesson on insignificance; on the inconsequential. Zachary and Ethan reconcile on their own accord, not depending on the passive-aggressive interaction between their parents. We watch out of a window without zoom/perspective as a disgruntled Zachary smacks Ethan with a sizeable stick and walks away without a second look. The dispute, as we understand, began with Ethan, along with the rest of the gang, counting him out. That episode ends, and we cut to a computer screen where Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) writes a complaint in the most hospitable of manners as her husband Michael (John C. Reilly), along with Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet), look on. The Longstreets are Ethan’s parents, while the Cowans show faint traces of shame and regret along with upper-middle class pride at having borne the aggressor, Zachary.
I do not know how much Bunuel’s ‘the Exterminating Angel’ could’ve been an influence. The most I’ve seen/heard of it was in ‘Midnight in Paris,’ where Woody Allen had cheek enough to suggest its idea to Bunuel himself, making his Gil Pender a sort of Ghost-contributor. But I kept relating throughout. It’s a film (as anyone who has watched ‘Midnight in Paris’ would know) about five dinner-guests who aren’t able to leave the house after their meal. They move, they shift around, but they just can’t leave.
In ‘Carnage’ in the guise of the Longstreets, Reza doesn’t let them. Insistence stems from hospitality, the most brutal of forces – you feed the bird to make it stay. Food here is discussion as well as the cobbler that Penelope serves the Cowans. Discussion evolves into friendly interaction with the meal and then devolves to an argument and a feud, literally, as food turns to vomit that Nancy throws up right in the middle of the coffee table – one that bears an assortment of Art magazines and catalogues and a bunch of bright Yellow, long-stalked Tulips in a big glass bowl.
Vomit is impulse where the reaction is as uncontrollable. Nancy cuts loose with apologies while Penelope struggles not to do the same with her hysterics. Destruction here was both unnecessary and unavoidable. But then it progresses to a point where it becomes deliberate when it could easily have been side-stepped. It’s like bumping into a person on the street and then it turns into an ugly brawl with both trying to cause the other as much pain as possible in a quest for self-establishment.
What I didn’t like about the film is how it steadied the pace of devolution in a case of constructed chaos. I found that to be irksome. Everything else was there to appreciate. The setup, the elegance, the performances. I liked John C. Reilly the best even though I know Polanski situates emphasis in his women. Each actor is cast in their respective comfort zone. Winslet with her hysterics, Foster with jabs of helplessness, Reilly for his laid-back gait and teddy-bear bursts of anger and sarcasm; Waltz for his presence. The script-to-stage entropy provided by a Reza work makes it the perfect Polanski vehicle, even though he plays it safe with textbook direction. The effect doesn’t lure us to stay – it asks us to. An insistence which I found to be reflected in the film itself, falling in its favour.