Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage was a Broadway hit that had a long run with its original cast, James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden (who won a Tony), Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. The four actors played married couples attempting to work through an act of violence that had occurred between their respective sons. I didn’t see it on stage, but having now seen Roman Polanski’s film version, simply called Carnage, I’m dismayed by the poorness of Reza’s play. It’s screechy, obvious, filled with odd infelicities of language, and particularly inept in giving us believable reasons why one couple, played here by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet, doesn’t just leave the apartment of the other couple, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly. After engaging in another bout of circuitous argument about their sons, Winslet and Waltz are forever heading out the door and toward an elevator before getting yanked back inside; after the second or third round, I was praying the elevator would just come and free them from this contrivance.
The casting is strange. Foster comes off worst, as if she’s forgotten how to act; she looks panicked as she keeps pushing emotions and widening her eyes like an amateur. I never believed for a moment that she even knew the always-easygoing Reilly, let alone was married to him. Reilly himself cannot supply the menace that Gandolfini reportedly exhibited on stage. Winslet is at least technically accomplished here, but I have no idea how the bland woman she plays wound up married to the cosmopolitan, preening Waltz, who’s just about as far from a self-loathing Jeff Daniels type as you can get.
Waltz is the only performer who seems to be in a Polanski movie, even if he is completely unsuited to his role; there’s a moment or two when he advances physically on Reilly that has Polanksi’s full editorial and camera-movement attention. Otherwise, Foster, Reilly, and Winslet don’t seem like they’ve ever even seen a Polanski film, let alone know how to behave in one. Polanski himself is too smart a man to put over this threadbare stage vehicle, which doesn’t even have the stab at gravitas that marked his adaptation of the second-rate play Death and the Maiden (1994). This is a long way from the theater of the absurd-inspired mastery of his Cul-de-sac (1966), but it isn’t Polanski’s fault that suitable theatrical inspiration for him has deteriorated so drastically from the ‘60s to the early ‘90s to today.
David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is also based on a play, Christopher Hampton’s The Talking Cure, featuring a quasi-love triangle between psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and psychotherapy godfather Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Hampton’s play of ideas is a modest achievement, intellectually stimulating and lightly suggestive, but it seems like a masterwork when set beside Reza’s Carnage.
Polanski is stuck with miscast actors and a chore of a slick hit play that never leaves an airless Brooklyn apartment. Cronenberg, on the other hand, has a solid small play with shifting settings to work with and three extremely well-cast players. Polanski breaks up his scenes with fairly predictable cuts and framings, and reduces one of his actors (Foster) to a grotesque caricature by keeping his camera so punishingly close to her harpy-like exertions. Cronenberg does a lot of cutting within scenes, but in A Dangerous Method the cuts feel coolly assured and often unexpected; they keep us off-balance. Polanski’s cuts in Carnage feel slightly desperate, grasping for effect, and quickly become exhausting. Neither of these films feature particularly long takes, but Polanski’s cuts sometime seem like compromises to cover uncertainty in the performances, whereas Cronenberg trusts his three actors and often lets the rhythms of their performances dictate the cutting.
Knightley has taken a lot of undeserved flack for the extremity of her performance in the early scenes of A Dangerous Method, when her character is manically all-over-the-place. Her sexually unhinged Sabina often falls into a jutting mannerism with her chin when she’s really unsettled, a bold choice on Knightley’s part; it looks like she’s chosen an animal of some kind as a pattern for Sabina’s physical behavior, and she goes all-out with this choice. As someone with more than a passing acquaintance with the mentally disturbed, all I can say is that Knightley’s chin mannerism here is exactly the kind of protective physical thing that people who are clinically ill often cling to, and it is also exactly the kind of thing that actors shy away from when they are playing mentally disturbed characters because it is wildly unflattering.
Knightley has made no impression on me at all in her diaphanous British leading lady roles, but as Sabina she creates a formidably exciting female sexual id as this girl remarkably comes into her own, eventually becoming a gifted analyst. Part of the success of Knightley’s work here is the husky, accented voice she uses, the voice of a super-smart Russian Jewish woman whose every utterance is a challenge of some kind. Cronenberg might have protected Knightley more in her breakdown scene with Jung where Sabina confesses that she liked being hit by her father; he might have even played the whole scene from Jung’s seated-behind-her point-of-view, so that we only heard that voice of hers as her back convulsed. But he otherwise supports her performance throughout with his camera placement and cutting.
Sabina is the true lead of the movie: its conscience, its brain, its heart, and its tempting body. In the scenes where Jung spanks Sabina, she loves it when he is “ferocious” with her, for Sabina sees sex as destruction. Sex, of course, is never too arousing in a Cronenberg movie; he’s always too interested in bodily decay for that, the weirdness of skin, orifices and fluids, so that the strongest image in A Dangerous Method is a close shot of Sabina’s bloodstained dress after Jung has taken her virginity. Cronenberg lingers so long on this blood stain that we can see how wet it still is in the light, and it’s clear that Sabina sees the stain as crucial evidence for her own ideas about sexuality.
Fassbender has the most difficult of the three roles because he has to play straight man in some scenes, then suggest Jung’s ambiguous feelings for Sabina and finally his undying love for her. He doesn’t always succeed. In the scene where Sabina confronts him when he first breaks things off with her, Fassbender looks too “chicks are crazy!” annoyed with this girl when he should be at least still a little enthralled by her. And this misjudgment makes his last scenes where he suddenly becomes a lovelorn Mr. Rochester, lost in a memory of love for Sabina, slightly unbelievable.
Knightley, too, sometimes makes choices that don’t read clearly, especially in the second prolonged spanking scene, where her face doesn’t express pain or pleasure but confusion. I’m not entirely sure Knightley understands sadomasochism, in the way that, say, Isabelle Huppert does in The Piano Teacher (2001), and this limits how far she can go at times.
Words, though, can barely express just how wonderful Mortensen is as Freud, except to say that this is a truly Brando-like performance in its serene amusement and its subtle habitation of a lofty, intractable man. Look especially at the moments when the cash-strapped Freud tries not to be bothered by Jung’s financial security. Most actors would be tempted to signal Freud’s unrest to get easy laughs, but Mortensen doesn’t show the indicated unrest at all. He just allows Freud to feel it behind a stony face and lets us provide the particulars of this joke.
Carnage runs 80 minutes and A Dangerous Method runs 99 minutes, both blessedly short for a commercial release today, yet Carnage seems to go on forever while A Dangerous Method feels like it might have benefited from being longer. When the Cronenberg movie concluded, I initially felt that it needed a few more scenes; nevertheless I’ve found myself increasingly haunted by it. This might be considered a spoiler, but I’d urge you to read it anyway if you haven’t seen the film: Sabina, we are told in the end titles, was shot by the Nazis, with her two daughters, in Russia in 1942. Knowing her eventual fate changes, or reveals, the real heart of the movie here.
This attractively turbulent, uncommon woman is marked for destruction, but we’ve seen enough of her to know that she welcomes it. She mentions her love of Wagner to Jung, and when she asks him if he shares her enthusiasm, he replies yes, he does, for both “the music and the man.” Is the Protestant Jung saying to this young Jewish girl that he admires the anti-Semite as well as the musician? They sit and listen to one of Wagner’s operas together; in a heated late scene, Freud tells Sabina that as Jews they need to stick together and that she needs to be more careful. But Knightley’s Sabina scorns carefulness, in her bed, in her work, in her life. And she eventually paid the price for it, after the film proper ends.
If I remember one thing from the movies this year, it will probably be Knightley’s Sabina, with her full, furry, carnal black eyebrows, exhausted in her white underwear after an endorphin-releasing sadomasochistic sex bout with her lover, impatiently disregarding life and looking Death squarely in the face as if to say, “Alright, come on and fuck me!”