The Films of 2011: Carnage

Roman Polanski’s new film Carnage is founded on a simple, one-note premise—two affluent New York couples meet to talk about an altercation at their children’s playground and end up at loggerheads—but it’s so fleet and well acted that it almost comes off.  Based on a play by Yasmina Reza, it runs a scant 79 minutes (with credits) and takes place completely within a Brooklyn apartment where the couples (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly; Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) brawl over espresso and apple-pear cobbler.  The play was originally written in French and has been translated and adapted by Reza, Polanski, and Christopher Hampton; in its American milieu, it becomes a cheerfully nasty—if somewhat easy—satire of New York parenting, liberalism, and home décor (Foster and Reilly’s apartment, tastefully appointed with rare coffee table books, imported tulips and Pottery Barn-style chotchkies, literally gets vomited on over the course of the film). 

I liked Carnage’s prickliness, its sense of discomfort, and its willingness to be downright crude in spots; there’s a nice balance between physical and verbal humor in the film that helps it from becoming too stagy.  As an uncomfortably funny black comedy about class and social tensions, it hearkens back to Polanski’s superb early work in the 1960s, in which he blended absurdity and menace to nerve-jangling effect.  Nevertheless, once we understand the central gimmick, Carnage has nowhere to go: the two couples’ nastiness reaches a fever pitch, after which point the film doesn’t so much end as stop abruptly.  (I wouldn’t have wanted a tidy denouement, but a stronger sense of finality—or at least a better last punchline—would have helped.)  

Other problems seem to stem from the film’s internationalism.  It’s hampered by some awkwardness in the dialogue, which I suspect is partly an issue of translation: while it’s supposed to be funny that Reilly’s pet name for his wife is “Darjeeling,” for example, the word doesn’t roll off his (or anybody’s) tongue in the way that it needs to in order to work.  In these and other moments in the film, the comic momentum falters because the dialogue—which is ever so slightly off in its attempt to replicate New York yuppie-speak—keeps tripping up the actors, immensely talented though they may be.  The talented Christoph Waltz, himself not a native speaker of English, is put at an even further disadvantage, and he often has trouble finding the right cadence in his line readings.

The women fare better.  Jodie Foster (why haven’t we seen her in better films these last ten years?) helps bring nuance to a character that could have been played more cartoonishly—the activist who does research on Africa and wants to educate her kids about art “to make up for what’s lacking in the school curriculum.”  Winslet, a gifted comic actress, is more broadly funny; she has a terrific drunk scene in which she makes us laugh both by using her voice and her body.  It’s a wonderful physical performance.  I’m grateful to Carnage for giving us some of the year’s best acting—even if otherwise it doesn’t amount to much.     

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