Reviewed as part of Keyframe’s coverage of the 49th New York Film Festival
There are a number of reasons to rejoice at the recent re-emergence – by which I mean here and in The Ghost Writer – of Roman Polanski as one of the great directors in the world. Chief amongst these would be that the cinema once again has a director capable of a truly productive cynicism, one that moves beyond taking a confirmation of its own distaste with the world as its endpoint to find real truths, the kind that only a man who’s been expelled from the world can see. Where The Ghost Writer folded the various currents of the media industry (a divergent system made mainly of Google searches, news reports, cellphone calls and mocked up PR) into a single stream of misinformation, Carnage works from the same skepticism toward modern communication in the opposite direction, stripping away layers of contrivance in order to prove that today, for the bourgeois at least, there is only contrivance.
If I feel confident when I say that Polanski’s film is superior to any staging of Yasmina Reza’s well-loved play – which I have never seen – it’s because of a precise, ontological reason: in the theater, the inability of the actor to escape from the place of the stage is a given (even when she is not visible, we know she is in the wings), which makes Reza’s Buñuelian captivity a convenience. In the cinema, though, one can leave a scene and be gone potentially forever, one more ghost amongst millions of others waiting for their moment of return, and this desire to escape, coupled crucially the possibility of its reality, renders the fate of Alan (Christoph Waltz), Nancy (Kate Winslet), Michael (John C. Reilly), and Penelope (Jodie Foster) as a terrible miracle. These four miserable jerks, in their utter inability to escape a situation that both ruins them and is the only one where they are afforded even a glimpse of real, human connection, are as moving as anything the cinema has produced this year.
Each actor brings their exceptional traits in full: Waltz’s disgusting charm as inescapable as the scenario; Foster’s tight mouth pulled into a death mask of liberal guilt; Reilly giddily alternating between brutal violence and schlubby affability; Winslet’s pathetic professionalism hiding the girl that Rivette called slovenly fifteen years ago inside like a Russian doll, that sad, frightened thing spewing out uncontrollably at one point. Polanski, for his part, will undoubtedly be paid many backhanded compliments by those praising him for his restraint and good sense in not mucking with the material – or, if they’re real idiots, claiming that anyone could have directed it – and in the process confirming that they know absolutely nothing about cinema.
Every image in Carnage is the result of a restless intelligence examining a story to find the best possible expression of each moment, which means that Polanski, in 80 minutes and a few hundred square feet, works through what can only be the tip of a seemingly inexhaustible set of blockings and compositions – which is fitting, since the ringing phone that ends the film (save a brief coda) serves as a reminder that this could go on forever. The Polanski touch manifests in his unique ability to conceive of an apartment as existing in a relationship of hysteria with its inhabitant(s) in which the space is both a catalyst and a mirror of the occupant’s mental and/or social degradation. Just as in Repulsion (the sexual mania of late-adolescence), Rosemary’s Baby (the crisis and fallacy of motherhood), and The Tenant (the outsider’s self-perpetuating victimization complex), so too does the Carnage’s Brooklyn-via-Paris apartment, with its mess of stilted culture (the living room) and bland privilege (the kitchen), serve as both a fluid container of the drama – the quartet makes three attempts to end the affair, twice getting as far as the elevator; another major rupture comes in the acknowledgment of the space of the bathroom, discovered at the end of a jolting steadicam shot of a stalking Foster; and Polanski’s use of mirrors as a means for extending dramatic space makes this with Mildred Pierce the most Fassbinderian film of the year – and a toolbox of inciting elements: priceless, out of print art magazines, expensive cigars, 18-year-old brandy, pear-apple cobbler, etc., all of which embody the group’s worst traits while contributing to their destruction.
Carnage, a film of great humor – I haven’t laughed harder at an image this year than that of Waltz and Reilly toasting in a mirror behind the image of a pissy Winslet (a joke, it should be noted, that could only be achieved in cinema) – is also one of great empathy and greater insight. Polanski takes no joy in these four sad lives, but he does create a space where they might finally come to realize the state they’re in. His netherworld Brooklyn, one where you can see the L train in Park Slope, confirms this as a fantasy, but that in no way lessens its force: the ability to bring about a change must start with an image, and for that, a fantasy is as good as any other. The hope Polanski holds for them is no different from the hope that Jean Renoir held for Maurice Legrand or Nicholas Ray held for Dix Steele. It’s the hope that we should all hold for the world.
Phil Coldiron is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Slant, The House Next Door, and LA Weekly, and he attempts to be as concise as possible on Twitter.