Roman Polanski’s Carnage was released in Moscow on December 8, 2011 (one day before my birthday). For those who follow Polanski’s work it is interesting to note a slight shift in his focus in the recent years. The range of themes he covered with his films knows little exception. There were freaks and misfits (The Tenant, Cul de Sac), power struggles (Macbeth), psychic disorders (Repulsion), games with the Devil (Rosemary’s Baby, The Ninth Gate), not to mention a good crime story (Chinatown) or a family drama (Bitter Moon, Knife in the Water). However, since The Pianist Polanski’s attention shifted towards “deeper” societal issues: survival (the theme of The Pianist, yet Oliver Twist explores generally the same topic, based on the life of a child), political games (The Ghost), and now, the process of making politics (Carnage). In spite of this shift, Polanski is far from being an outspoken political film maker: he weaves mystery (The Ghost) and humour (Carnage) skillfully into the story, and this is precisely the reason why both his latest films are more real in their depiction of what goes on in the world of politics, than any other political thriller.
On the surface, Carnage is a study of two pairs of parents who one day got together to discuss the incident between their children. It is generally assumed that parents need to discuss their children in the absense of children. Kids don’t usually understand whatever is going on in the world, so it is the adults who have to make good for them.
What follows is a game of cat and mouse: the innumerable attempts to hide personal problems, family problems, despise, distrust, while simultaneously trying to save one’s face and to maintain the bourgeois status quo. Uncomfortable truth comes to surface: nobody is as good as they’d like to be seen. Zachary’s father (Christopher Waltz) is a 24/7 lawyer who seems to never get off his phone; his wife (Kate Winslet) is an investment broker who doesn’t particularly like her husband’s preoccupation with work; Ethan’s father (John O’Reilly) sells toilet systems and hates small pets, like hamsters; and his wife (Jodie Foster) is a wannabe writer, working on a book on the Darfur crisis and absorbed by problems in Africa.
This is the story of one’s inability to withdraw from the conflict (Zachary’s parents continuously agree to go back to the apartment where they’re once more lured into a dispute over their son); of one’s preoccupation with problems beyond their reach which helps to reaffirm one’s importance and goodness; of one’s lack of will to stand their own ground; and importantly, of the ability to blow an incident out of proportion. All these (in)”abilities” lead to criminalising a person, even a child; and they also help to understand how wars are being waged. It’s not merely because two parties are infinitely opposite and don’t want to find the common ground, and don’t understand each other. They simply don’t listen. Each party only knows one truth, and that truth is usually connected to a host of other factors that just cannot be abandoned. And so, Zachary falls short from being qualified as a juvenile criminal, “armed with a stick”, while hamster is gloryfied as a sort of martyr at the hands of a cruel toilet seat seller…
…as it happens, while parents are talking politics, their children already play together, and hamster is happily engorging on the grass in the heart of New York City.
This is the second time Polansky adapted a stage play to screen (previously it was Death and the Maiden). Written by Yasmina Reza, this is a “comedy of no manners”, but in modern world when politicians and plebeians both use Social Media to foster their agenda, everyone is has a role in this comedy. Everyone is concerned about not losing their face, secretly hating another party, and being wilfully oblivious to the existence of other facts.
Above all, everyone who gets involved in this, has no sense of humour. This is why Paul Arden in his book, God Explained in a Taxi Ride, says that, had the world’s best comedians and stand-up artists been called to discuss politics, they’d never wage a war – their sense of humour wouldn’t permit them to choose the means of action prefereed by “serious people”. The problem is, adults are expected to be “serious”; you cannot be kidding when you already have kids and carry the whole world on your shoulders. As a result, there are wars, hatred wrapped in diplomacy, that fight for an assumed wellbeing of a hamster, having little to no idea about its real needs.
A couple of words about actors. John O’Reilly may not be the usual leading man in Hollywood but in Carnage he shines. At times he will remind you on his Cellophane Man from Chicago, with his open-heartedness and readiness to please. When you don’t see his name in the list of “stars” on IMDb.com, you actually feel sad. Jodie Foster is brilliant at playing someone for whom Jane Fonda’s political exploits could indeed be an inspiration. Kate Winslet is so fully “in” her character’s shoes that she effortlessly goes from a subdued to active involvement in the scene. Christopher Waltz keeps more or less on the sideline until the finale, but his is irreplaceable support of the story dynamics.