Carnage the film from Roman Polanski – Chaos, vomit and a missing hamster

Kate Winslet projectile vomiting across an expensive coffee table. Christoph Waltz stuffing his face and snorting like a deranged pig. Four people at a meeting in an apartment they appear unable to leave. It sounds like a torturous Sartre play. Thankfully, it is a lot more fun than that. It all takes place in ‘Carnage’ the film from director Roman Polanski.

The film has been adapted from God of Carnage, the French play from Yasmina Reza, which has been translated into English and gained huge acclaim for its performances in the UK and US.

Adapting a play into a film can work well, such as Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant reimagining of Romeo and Juliet. However, other adaptations have not translated so well. The film version of the musical Annie, which consisted of a chipper orphan girl staring up at Albert Finney’s swollen face, was about as enjoyable as having your retinas slowly blowtorched off.

Carnage the film  is not released in UK cinemas until February but it is already receiving a lot of attention from critics and excited moviegoers. Here is a sneak preview of what to expect.

The story centres around two sets of parents meeting to discuss a dispute between their two sons; one boy has hit the other with a stick, causing him to lose two teeth. The parents of the victim, Michael and Penelope (played by John C Reilly and Jodie Foster), invite the other parents Alan and Nancy (played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), to their Brooklyn apartment to discuss the incident.

Whilst the meeting between these two parents starts in a civilised manner, it all descends into… well, carnage. Nancy falls ill and hilariously vomits all over Penelope’s irreplaceable art books, everyone gets rip-roaring drunk on Michael’s whisky, and they all vent their furious disagreements.

The calibre of the film’s acting has been gaining a lot of attention, with Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster already receiving Golden Globe nominations.

The film has some intriguing aspects. Firstly, it is set entirely in Michael and Penelope’s apartment. Except for the opening and closing shots, no other locations are used. Secondly, the film is shot in real time. There are no elapses or switches in time. The running time of the film, which totals at a brief 80 minutes, is the duration of the meeting between the parents.

Also, the film is set in New York but was shot entirely in a Parisian apartment as Roman Polanski is not allowed into the US for legal reasons. The 76 year old French-Polish director fled the US in 1976 after pleading guilty to having sex with an underage girl. Polanski has not returned to the US since.

The film offers two sets of adults, each with their own beliefs, coming into conflict. Penelope describes the art in her books as showing a balance between chaos and order. The film appears to investigate how these two forces interact.

Penelope, who arranges the meeting, proclaims herself as the moral agent of the group. She has written a book about Africa, values culture and holds very liberal values. Thankfully, she is not spared any criticism, especially from underhand Alan. He tells Penelope: “I believe in a God of carnage: the God whose rule has been unchallenged since time immemorial”. He believes in base instincts and therefore his son’s attack was justified, whilst Penelope feels that people have a duty to overcome these impulses.

One of the joys of the film is watching a group of actors at the top their game sparring with each other. Winslet and Waltz make up the stronger duo. Winslet plays the passive-aggressive Nancy well, who after a few drinks becomes more outraged. Waltz seems to be mumbling his way through his lines, which somehow is both fascinating and repellent.

John C Reilly continues to look like a knackered potato but his worn-down husband persona, which he brings to almost all of his roles, seems to actually work here. Jodie Foster probably plays it the most serious. Her performance may not be as sardonic as the others, but she does emotionally anchor the film.

Carnage the film succeeds at dramatizing the conflicts between these four characters. Their façade of politeness soon slips to show a more aggressive clash of attitudes. The film also has some amusing subplots, the best one being about a missing hamster that Michael has placed out on to the street, much to the disgust of Nancy.

One criticism that could apply to the film is that its biggest statement of confiding all the drama to one apartment over the length of an afternoon, somehow limits the potentials of opening up the play to its cinematic potential. The audience may want to exit the claustrophobic environment faster than the fidgeting characters they are watching.

Carnage is unsurprisingly going to be compared with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Also adapted from a play, the film shows an older couple venting their anguish at a younger couple. It is widely regarded as one of the best stage to screen adaptations of all time.

When compared with this film, Carnage doesn’t quite go for the jugular. The audience is not left asking serious questions about the relationships of its characters. The dark comic tone is more mocking than devastating. As an outsider to the US, it seems surprising that Polanski is not harsher on American values.

Yet, whilst the film may not quite deliver the levels of carnage that the title suggests, there is still a lot of fun to be had. All of the characters are critiqued by each another and no one comes out unscathed. Even the supposedly moralistic characters are accused, rather deliciously, of being self-righteous.

That is the fun of the film. It is a glorious mess of characters who don’t see eye-to-eye. No one agrees, no one gets on, and nothing is really resolved. Polanski has a great time showing us the tensions inherent in Western society. We are all thrown into a small space together, everyone is expected to get on and chaos soon ensues. It’s only a matter of time before someone starts vomiting everywhere.

‘Carnage’ the film is due for release in February 2012

words Matthew Kinlin


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