Carnage: comedy of no-manners patronises Americans and diminishes its audiences

Roman Polanski, “Carnage” (2011)

Not one of his better efforts due to the nature of the original play but then again, a comedy from Polanski is almost as rare as teeth in a chicken, especially one as entirely dialogue and character-driven as this. Two school-age boys have scuffled and one has whacked the other in the face with a switch, breaking two of his teeth, so the culprit’s parents agree to meet the victim’s at his home. Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of the miscreant, have jobs as investment banker and corporate lawyer respectively; the victim’s folks, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), are somewhat lower class where income is concerned but are more cultured, or at least Penelope is (or pretends to be). In attempting to call a truce and assign financial responsibility for the victim’s dental expenses, the two couples allow their personal lives to take over the conversation via their cellphone calls and their respective civilised veneers, loosened by too many glasses of scotch, fall away; before long, their hang-ups about their marriages, class differences, social consciences, general outlook on life, obligations to their families and a pet hamster explode into the open in the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment.

Polanski is wise to keep all the action based in one room (the Longstreets’ lounge-room) so as to allow the actors to fly freely with their characters. Foster and Winslet excel with their particular characters: Foster the socially conscious and caring writer-cum-artist activist is revealed as an ambitious, narrow-minded and controlling shrew who always has to be top dog; Winslet the high-maintenance trophy wife loses control of herself from drinking too much and vomiting. Reilly and Waltz have rather more limited roles with Reilly playing a mediator and failing dismally and Waltz a workaholic more interested in winning lawsuits on behalf of crooked corporate clients in order to avoid dealing with a failing marriage and a child affected by his parents’ fights and faults. We start to see why the children of these parents might have behaved the way they did: the Cowans’ son wants the attention his parents are not giving him and the Longstreets’ son may be a passive child vulnerable to bullying because his mother coddles him and his father is too laidback to show him how to stand up for himself.

There are incongruities in the characters: what Penelope, who more or less conforms to the popular “champagne socialist” type (socially conscientious, skimming the surface of art and culture so as to appear sophisticated), found attractive in Michael with his non-PC prejudices and cavalier attitude towards small animals is never explained though their differences provide plenty of laughs; and Nancy and Michael are equally mismatched (she a brittle upper class princess, he a dull one-dimensional corporate robot whose life revolves around work) and contemptuous of each other. It’s likely though that the common bonds between them are love of money and status and who married whom for the money is perhaps not too difficult to work out. Initially the conflict is between morally upright do-gooding Penelope and cynical Alan with Michael trying to calm down and jolly people along and Nancy performing her simpering debutante act. The action clearly takes place in a claustrophobic and labyrinthine hot-house apartment though the Longstreets refer to their home as a “house”; usually in Polanski’s films, such a setting reflects characters’ inner states of mind but in this movie the setting merely looks picturesque.

Although the actors are very capable and the comedy is fast-paced and well-timed, the plot itself ends up in a rut: the characters simply keep on finding new scabs to pick at and make bleed and the bickering becomes tiresome. Script-writers Yasmina Reza (who wrote the original play) and Polanski pile on one unpleasantry after another on the characters until they become caricatures of themselves and the action is forced to stop rather suddenly when Nancy petulantly flings flowers about. One presumes the film-makers discovered at the last minute that there were no custard pies in the Longstreets’ fridge.

What themes exist in the film – how the rapacity of Wall Street and corporate culture has found its way into the lives of people like the Cowans and reduced them to mean-spirited, hollowed-out shells who can’t connect with their son; the snootiness of self-styled “liberal” and “progressive” types like Penelope loudly proclaiming their new versions of the 19th-century “white man’s burden” by writing books about wars and poverty in Africa while perhaps ignoring the poverty in their own neighbourhoods; the redneck vulgarity of Michael – are treated in a patronising way. The audience is expected to laugh at these foolish Americans for their self-obsession and identity politics. Yet in laughing at them, we ourselves are diminished; aren’t we just as obsessed with our social identities, how we want people to view us and admire us, and aren’t we also just as unconcerned about the poor people in our midst while we express horror and concern for poor people in distant countries whom we hope we never have to see?

Interestingly the most important part of the film occurs right at the end where we see the couples’ sons being friendly as if nothing had happened between them earlier. This suggests the world in a microcosm: while the parents, self-important and materially wealthy but spiritually lacking, quarrel and treat their children like objects or trophies, the children themselves overcome any social differences and conflicts between them and become pals. If only our elites, obsessed with ideology, destructive economic growth and controlling the public, would just disappear and let the common people sort out the mess the world is in through working together and finding common ground, the planet will regenerate and humanity’s future would be bright indeed. Dream on.

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