***originally written 15 February 2012***
Ask a lot of directors what the hardest thing to shoot is, and they’ll say that it’s four people sitting around a table talking to each other. There are only so many ways to make it interesting. Only so many ways of maintaining visual interest before resorting to arch compositions and awkward set-ups. Roman Polanski’s new film Carnage takes place in one location, with just four actors. And a coffee table.
Of course, it’s not the first time that something like this has been attempted, not by a long shot. And there have been many success stories. Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is a prime example. See also the likes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Rear Window, though one might argue that Rear Window, with it’s elaborate set outside the apartment, doesn’t count.
Carnage is adapted from a stage play, and that’s evident throughout. The dialogue is very much in keeping with the traditions of modern theatre, in that it often fits uncomfortably articulate sentences into the mouths of it’s characters. Thanks to this, the actors (impressive as they are) cannot help sometimes sounding a little hampered. Performances shoe-horned around their clever words.
And who do we have here? A rich foursome to be sure. Jodie Foster and John C Reilly play Michael and Penelope, whose New York apartment the action takes place in. They have invited over Christophe Waltz and Kate Winslet (Alan and Nancy) to discuss how best to deal with a playground encounter between their respective sons. Inevitably, what follows is a long and rambling conversation, in which the parents frequently end up behaving as badly as their children. Reconciliation is never quite so easy.
So it’s a comedy of manners and social etiquette. The laughs here are mostly garnered, in the first half anyway, from observing the ways in which the characters contradict themselves, or tumble down routes of argument that take them far off-topic. What begins as a dispute over the wording of an apology ends up lost in bickering over the correct way to dispose of hamsters, and what constitutes a pie and what constitutes a cake. In the second half when Michael’s whisky is produced, the comedy mainly switches to observing the characters’ different reactions to alcohol.
And what a set of monsters we have. Foster’s Penelope becomes profoundly irritating; a highly strung ball of nerves and indignation who, when her politcially correct worldview is challenged, breaks down into seemingly endless tears. Waltz’ Alan permanently stuck on his mobile phone is arrogant and petulant. Winslet’s Nancy is frustrated and impatient. John C Reilly’s Michael is easily the film’s most personable character, yet he too is not without faults, a man too long squared-away by his wife into playing the middle class New Yorker, when he really wants to smoke cigars and badmouth his mother.
Over the film’s 79 minutes these four switch alliances and positions so often that it is difficult – perhaps pointless – to keep track. How many times have you been in an argument and managed to keep it strictly about exactly what you wanted to? As far as the acting goes, though all four are good, particular praise must go to John C Reilly for bringing a little Steve Bruelle to the table, and especially to Kate Winslet for bravely and boldly vomiting everywhere in the film’s stand- out tilt into gross- out comedy.
But is Carnage any good? Though there are funny moments, it is hard not to find this all a bit weary. This is, after all, an hour and twenty minutes of people arguing, and watching any four people arguing for that long is going to be a tough sell. Arguments are tiresome. At different times, the meeting is referred to as ‘exhausting’, ‘boring’, and ‘pointless’, by its subjects. It is hard not to agree. For such a short running time, I found myself clockwatching way too early. And there are only so many times you can traipse your cast out into the hall and back before it becomes contrived.
Even at the end nobody gets to leave. Perhaps, like Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, the point is that they never actually get anywhere, that middle class New Yorkers are doomed to spend eternity picking fights with one another about nothing, arguing the use of different words, and ruining each other’s coffee table books. And there really are only so many ways to make that interesting.
But hey, at least I got all the way through a Roman Polanski review without touching the hot potato of the director’s own controversies.