Directed by Roman Polanski
Cinematography by Pawel Edelman
Written by Yasmina Reza and Roman Polanski
Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz
In Polanski’s “apartment” films, perhaps the small urban apartment represents the epitome of freedom. That impression is particularly strong in his new film, Carnage, in which barf and belligerence are expended with a cathartic sense of relief, and the compression of those walls seems to liquify our stifled ugliness like loosened phlegm. The question some viewers grapple with is why Alan and Nancy don’t simply get the hell out. They have been invited to the apartment to calmly discuss their son’s act of physical aggression against Penelope and Michael’s son, but when things go sour and all parties openly express the desire for them to leave, there’s only one explanation for why they stay. This is the best day of their lives.
And why shouldn’t it be? One critic compared the entire play to a kind of parlor game, which certainly seems like an apt comparison. The couples dispense all the trappings of a festive gathering: food, coffee, scotch, and increasingly lively conversation. I myself, having watched the film directly after attending a much more repressed type of get-together (you know, the kind frequented by sensible 20-somethings), found myself wishing that more parties could be blessed with such open candor. But although the gathering in Carnage displays all the symptoms of a social sport, there’s too much purpose, too much at stake for it to be simply recreational. I instead propose that the play be performed under the supervision of a Gestalt therapist, in which the actors can use their lines as a vehicle for “experimental freedom”.
That might seem like a stretch, but the whole spectacle already feels as artificial as a lab experiment. It has the schematic quality of a Lars Von Trier film, so that some larger force is at work to ensure that these four characters don’t just represent liberal Brooklyn parents (as such, their wardrobe, diction, and demeanor are startlingly inaccurate), but rather the various psychological forces at work in society. The tagline reads “a comedy of no manners” but a more accurate description might be “an amorality play”. It’s more Freudian than Cronenberg’s, A Dangerous Method, and more psychologically precise than Von Trier’s mammoth and ill-measured Melancholia – both of which are still in theaters. Devoid of period affectations or visual gimmicks, Polanski’s camera gives us an immersive stage in which nothing is left for the imagination. The play itself, then, is our collective Freudian fantasy of the urban id.
Polanski has dealt with this type of material before; the catharsis of entrapment is key to many of his films, particularly The Tenant. In that film, Trelkovsky could almost certainly have left his Parisian apartment as easily as Alan and Nancy could have left their hosts’ Williamsburg residence. But the gleeful hysteria with which Polanski portrays Trelkovsky’s descent into madness and transformation into Simone Choule (ostensibly at the behest of his neighbors), indicates that there’s some gratification in staying. The enclosure forces release – in that case, of femininity, self-expression, and self-aggression. In Carnage, the characters regurgitate a similar cocktail of nastiness.
Self-directed hostility is a particularly key ingredient in the melange, and in Carnage it all lands on Jodie Foster’s well-intentioned Penelope. Her liberal guilt-ridden character, more than anyone else in the ensemble, embodies the prototypical Polanski protagonist. This is in part due to unequaled extremity of her downward spiral. But it has more to do with the fact that Penelope is the only character who directs so much of her aggression inward – even as she lashes out. When all is said and done, she’s the one with the most baggage to lose and luckily for her she’s lost it all. Although she’s the first character to utter the sentiment “this is the unhappiest day of my life”, the line itself is ejected with such lack of repression that it almost sounds like a positive declaration of mental hygiene. And therein lies the lesson of Carnage: the next time someone throws up on your priceless art books, take it as a kind gift of permission to push your own bile into the bucket.