Tried and tested on stage from Paris to London to Broadway, New York, Yasmina Reza’s successful play God of Carnage was always going to present a challenge being adapted for film by the playwright herself. However, the key to the story – shortened to Carnage – is the power of the acting talent assigned to play the parents; director Roman Polanski’s excellent casting of Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as the Longstreets, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as the Cowans is the absolute tour de force of the film.
After the Cowans’ son, Zachary (Polanski’s own son Elvis) ‘disfigures’ the Longstreets’ son, Ethan (Eliot Berger) with a stick in the park, the Longstreets, Penelope (Foster) and Michael (Reilly) invite the Cowans, Nancy (Winslet) and Alan (Waltz) over to their apartment to discuss what course of action should be taken next. However, a civilised, albeit contrived meeting unravels into childish chaos.
Set in New York, but filmed in Paris, Polanski’s Carnage is brilliantly acted, scripted, produced and directed, with all the nitty gritty relationship angst allowed to vent and later explode under one roof and in one location. The latter allows the tension to build from the start with the false pleasantries while Penelope drafts a formal-looking statement for the Cowans about what happened, adding in inflammatory language. The delicious development of the story is in the detail that you and the characters pick up on about each of the four players that suggests possible reasons for the kids’ ‘character flaws’ and the boys’ fight. In suppressing their true feelings, the whole fiasco and attention on pointless irrelevancies becomes a farce of epic proportions, which is where the dark humour lies.
Both sets of parents are complete contradictions that re-draw their allegiances as the story unfolds, down to basic ‘man verses woman’ and even macho traits, such as the hilarious scene involving high-flying lawyer Alan’s mobile phone, as well as the mens’ alpha dominance rearing its head over scotch and a cigar. While Waltz is delightful as the arrogant and blasé Alan, more interested in his business life than his personal one, and taking amusement from toying with his new acquaintances and his wife, it’s Reilly’s salesman character Michael who is the real catalyst in the story, manipulating the situation and encouraging the characters’ prejudices to pour forth.
Foster is a wonderful bag of shredded nerves and morals as liberal humanitarian Penelope who wants the others to see the bigger picture of the origins of violence from a world perspective. Her inverted snobbery matches Nancy’s prosperous, aloof nature, and after an unfortunate cobbler pie incident, their role reversal in the confrontation scenes allows them to see each others’ side of events as they bond over the trials and tribulations of motherhood and marriage. Winslet is a rollicking drunk to behold as she lets her prissy demeanour slip.
Carnage is one of the most accomplished and illuminating comedies of this year that lays bare the true, hidden depth of its characters within a downward spiral of complete folly. Polanski’s theatrical film is a breath of comedic fresh air at the box office, and a highly entertaining must-see.