Roman Polanski has long had a penchant for squeezing his characters into confined spaces, where nothing good ever happens. From Knife in the Water and Repulsion to Death and the Maiden and The Pianist, entrapment in its various forms – social, political, psychological – recurs throughout Polanski’s canon.
Carnage can now be added to the list of examples, but not, alas, to his record of achievement. Although the subject, school bullying, is as fresh as today’s headlines, the treatment isn’t. Despite the efforts of an impressive cast, the film starts out stale and then just gets tedious.
Admittedly, there are a few laughs to be had along the way. The script, adapted from Yasmina Reza’s stage play, is designed as a satire around this simple conceit: When one boy whacks another with a stick, loosening a couple of his teeth, the kids’ oh-so-civilized parents meet in a Brooklyn apartment to parse the incident.
Another confined space, then, where nothing good happens. But this time something funny is also meant to break out, and occasionally does – just not frequently enough to compensate for the encroaching tedium.
The bully’s parents, Alan the high-profile lawyer (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy the investment broker (Kate Winslet), are paying the visit. The victim’s parents, Michael the hardware salesman (John C. Reilly) and Penelope the bookstore clerk (Jodie Foster), occupy the apartment.
The class difference is deliberate and, initially, seems like promising ground for satiric humour. Freely admitting their son’s guilt, the visitors are cordial in their words but their glances can’t disguise an air of condescension – at the offer of “homemade peach cobbler” or at the art books stacked ostentatiously on the coffee table, as upwardly mobile as their owners.
However, the satiric promise fizzles when tempers begin to frazzle, when the obvious (too obvious) microcosm of the civilized world starts its inevitable meltdown. The first to crack is Alan who, incessantly fielding office calls on his cellphone, is engaged in his own type of bullying with a transparent subtext: I’m important, this little kiddie matter isn’t. Penelope, an avowed liberal and aspiring writer on African famine, is already showing signs of her true nature – she’s one of those aggressive pacifists.
Michael appears to be the easygoing peacemaker, but that collar of his has a suspiciously blue tinge. As for suddenly nauseous Nancy, when she projectile vomits over those coffee-table books, the symbolism could be read by a grade-schooler: Art victimized again by warring Philistines.
Soon after Michael bellows, “Who wants a little Scotch?”, cracks open in both marriages, causing the alliances to shift. The men bond over the booze, the women bond over the men bonding over the booze, until the gals too get tipsy, whereupon no detente is safe.
At this point, the characters have forgotten what the audience hasn’t – that the original subject of youthful bullying, especially in the age of that ubiquitous cellphone, isn’t being illuminated at all. So intent on building and then blowing up its “citizens of the world” metaphor, the script loses sight of the topic at hand. The message gets lost in the microcosm.
Necessarily shooting in Paris, Polanski definitely creates a credible Brooklyn apartment. The behaviour here may be farcical, but at least the set looks real. Within its confines, he moves the camera with his usual grace but not to his usual purpose. Typically, menace is his métier – comedy not so much. Indeed, if this is satire, it’s as broad as a stick to the head and just about as subtle. Guess who’s feeling bullied now?
- Directed by Roman Polanski
- Written by Yasmina Reza and Roman Polanski
- Starring Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly
- Classification: 14A
- 2 stars
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