Carnage – 2011

Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz
Screenplay by Polanski and Yasmina Reza based on some French play

It’s really difficult to think of Roman Polanski as just a director.  The first thing that comes to my mind is how in the world is this man still free after what he did to a 13-year-old girl in a photo shoot in 1977, when he was 43 years old.  That’s 30 years difference, for those keeping score.  He fled prosecution and has avoided it ever since.  As a result, I have generally avoided Polanski films, and tried to avoid thinking about those in Hollywood who would defend him.  Among the latest batch, Foster, Reilly, Winslet and Waltz.

Of course this is guilt by association, and somewhat unfair, I suppose.  One can’t know the feelings of all involved in this mess.  Needless to say, I broke this trend due to respect for the way Foster has continued to support Mel Gibson.  She could be wrong about him too, to be sure.  That, then, would make 2 of us.  With a heavy, overworked conscience, I forged ahead…and almost immediately regretted it.

There is a phrase about plays, “how it translates to screen,” that is the perennial question for those who are curious about both things.  Stage work has never been a curiosity for me, specifically because, with film, we have advanced beyond the restrictions of stage.  It would be kind of like going back and having men play all the characters, à la Greek theater, when we long ago decided that women can portray themselves.

In the case of Carnage, there really is no point in using the word “translate,” because of the dearth of locations.  The film takes place in 4 rooms and a hallway with a barking dog.  So, invariably, we are trapped with these characters in a claustrophobic place, for better or, in this case, worse.  The tension starts immediately over a letter created to signify the actions of the children of two couples, played by Foster and Reilly and Winslet and Waltz.  One of the boys, during the opening credits, popped the other in the mouth with a stick.  Why this happened is unimportant.  As is the contents of the letter.  The point is to get the two couples there.

So, conversing in decent manners at first, one couple gets (Winslet and Waltz) get ready to leave, of course they don’t, and their conversation takes a turn.  They have some dessert, converse a bit more, and the tension rises.  Motives and attitudes shift as often as one episode of Glee to the next.  Glee, most understand, is a pretty crappy show.  Many have called this type of back and forth decent play writing.  This screenplay, at least, won an award in Spain.

The one thing this film has going for it is the actors.  Each of their efforts is tight and they squeeze every bit of common sense the script can afford.  Waltz, in particular, plays his character as realistically as it can be.  The many cell phone calls he receives, as well the rest of the group’s response to them plays as good as anything I’ve seen since Glengarry Glen Ross.  The rest of this, no matter how gamely played, is of no interest to me on a Sunday afternoon…or any other day.

One of the early conversations centers around a vat full of yellow tulips.  Each of the women prattle on about these tulips at first.  It’s a seemingly inane talking point, which, like any play, shows up over and over.  Finally, one of the characters, Foster, I think, screams:

“I don’t care about the tulips!”

That makes two of us.

(** out of *****)

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