Roman Polanski is back after his wonderfully dark film The Ghost with a film adapted from Yasmina Reza’s stage play The God of Carnage that retains the feel of a theatre piece showcasing verbal fireworks and suffers as a result.
Brooklyn, New York. Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and her husband Michael (John C. Reilly) are hosting Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) and his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet) in their apartment due to the fact that the Cowan’s son Zachary (Elvis Polanski) has had a playground dust-up with their son Ethan (Eliot Berger). At first they are polite as the two couples negotiate where the blame lies and how to help the boys resolve their issues. Things rapidly descend into farce as semantics are argued, marital strains emerge and the couples’ throw civility aside and argue.
Polanski is highly skilled at putting unhappy people in difficult situations and letting things play out. My first Polanski films were Repulsion, and Cul-de-sac. They brilliantly used the film medium to display the fragmenting relationships and characters. It is the same here as two outwardly happy relationships break down but it is so unrelenting and at times contrived that it feels false.
The film betrays its theatre origins with its wordiness and its static nature. Most of the action takes place in a lounge cluttered with art books and furniture which becomes claustrophobic. Any attempts to leave the location are foiled by increasingly contrived twists – would two bickering sets of parents really want to stay in each other’s presence for a drink?
The only scenes away from the apartment are two exterior shots bookending the film (the final one adding a comic dénouement). Kinetic energy comes from the actors’ and the camera which cuts to and frames characters in different ways as alliances are formed and broken and relationships alter. Occasional tracking shots follow actors as they hurry around the set but the focus is on the acting and dialogue.
At first the film’s verbal barbs are great to follow and maintain great pace and acid wit. Jodie Foster is brilliant as a high-minded liberal, her every sentence a pointed criticism of others. She lives her ideals and expects others to adhere to them and when they complain she retorts, “I’m not being aggressive I’m being honest.” In response to her Christoph Waltz who initially starts off detached becomes increasingly irritated and it is amusing watching him taking umbrage with Foster’s linguistic warfare.
Witnessing them cut through social decorum we use to protect ourselves and others from hearing our true feelings is humorous and occasionally truthful “Men find women crying to be very aggravating.” The problem is that it is unrelenting and increasingly theatrical and the writing started to flag relying on tired jokes salvaged from the gender wars. It slowly dawns on you that the characters are only set up to show how petty middle class adults can be and by the end they remain unlikeable. As a result I didn’t make an emotional connection with anyone. If the actors were given more to flesh out their roles than just hysterics the film might have had weight and caught my attention more.
When the credits rolled, I felt distanced thanks to the staginess. I suspect that if I had seen the stage play I might have been more forgiving of the contrived nature of the situations and in awe of actors who can maintain a pace of verbal assault. This, however, is a film and it wastes the medium’s potential by rooting us to the spot and I spent more time wondering why these characters hadn’t left each other earlier. It does not measure up to Polanski’s best by a long shot but for the first half it is amusing.
Release Date: 3rd February 2012
Running Time: 79 mins.
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Yasmina Reza (original play and screenplay), Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Elvis Polanski, Eliot Berger