The gloves come off early and the social graces disintegrate on cue in “Carnage,” which spends 79 minutes observing, and encouraging, the steady erosion of niceties between two married couples. But the real battle in Roman Polanski’s brisk, fitfully amusing adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s popular play is a more formal clash between stage minimalism and screen naturalism, as this acid-drenched four-hander never shakes off a mannered, hermetic feel that consistently betrays its theatrical origins. Classy cast and pedigree should yield favorable specialty returns for the Sony Classics release, arriving Dec. 16 Stateside after its Venice and New York festival bows.
Known as a filmmaker of icy, incisive temperament with such play-to-pic translations as “Macbeth” and “Death and the Maiden” under his belt, Polanski seemed an ideal fit for “God of Carnage,” Reza’s withering takedown of smug, middle-class values and the comforting notion, expressed by one character early on, that “we’re all decent people.” Like its Broadway progenitor, the smartly retitled “Carnage” unfolds in something close to real time in a Brooklyn apartment, and its single-set confinement recalls Polanski’s similarly claustrophobic studies of urban alienation in “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant.”
The helmer’s legal woes prevented him from shooting in the U.S., a fact resourcefully concealed by a well-appointed Paris studio set and some expert digital touch-up work. The first of only two exterior scenes is an opening long shot of Brooklyn Bridge Park, where some roughhousing among 11-year-olds ends with one boy, Zachary, striking another, Ethan, with a stick. It’s a wordless tableau that forms a deliberate contrast with the verbal pyrotechnics to follow in Reza and Polanski’s extremely faithful adaptation (translated from French into English by Michael Katims).
The incident leaves Ethan with two missing teeth, and Zachary’s parents, Alan and Nancy Cowen (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), pay a visit to Ethan’s parents, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), to initiate a reconciliation between their sons. Yet as the four discuss the incident with initially polite deference over cobbler and coffee, their veneer of civility soon crumbles under the film’s relentless scrutiny.
Doing the most to hasten the screaming match is Penelope, whose casually barbed insinuations reveal a near-maniacal need to control the situation; at the other end of the spectrum, busy lawyer Alan signals his complete disinterest by making regular phone interruptions. Anxious to offset her husband’s rudeness, Nancy does herself no favors by overdosing on warm beverages, and before anyone can say “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Michael breaks out the scotch, momentarily relieving the tension and lubricating them all for the next round.
Couple turns against couple, husbands against wives, and the tulips, handbags and bodily fluids begin to fly, in a payoff that has as much zing here as it did in the play. Yet while “Carnage” is still largely a hoot, it never divorces itself from the talky trappings of the stage; the considerable effort expended to let the piece breathe onscreen merely exposes its underlying artifice, making it fairly easy to reject Reza’s thesis that individuals live in a natural state of opposition according to gender, class and personal philosophy.
One is continually made aware of buttons being pushed, of the actors taking pains to say precisely the wrong (or right) thing to fan the flames, yet the film actually becomes less tense as it progresses. Certain repeated questions — “Why are we still here?” and “Should we wrap this up?” — begin to take on unwelcome meanings, despite the compact running time.
While the four actors deliver distinctive turns, marked by body language often more pointed than the dialogue, the proceedings are somewhat dampened by the miscasting of one couple. Foster, called on to function as more of an ensemble player than usual, nails Penelope’s insufferable micro-managing and liberal do-gooder impulses, but the tightly wound actress doesn’t bellow with the full-blooded authority the role requires. Reilly is almost too easily cast as Michael, pointedly the shlubbiest and most blue-collar of the bunch, at times tilting the material toward a broader style of comedy than desired.
Winslet assuredly charts Nancy’s passive-aggressive journey from vulnerable to tetchy. But it’s Waltz who gives the film’s most delectable turn, in part because it’s the most subdued. Almost mumbling his lines to himself and delivering half of them into a cell phone, his Alan radiates supreme indifference to the needs of anyone but himself.
Polanski’s technical collaborators use every tool in their arsenal to achieve the illusion of seamlessness, and the level of craft at work is something to behold. Herve de Luze’s editing carves up the performance space into a multitude of angles and perspectives offered up by Pawel Edelman’s camera, which at times isolates the characters in stationary shots that express relationships visually, and elsewhere tracks the actors up and down the apartment corridors. Dean Tavoularis’ production design and Milena Canonero’s costumes are the very picture of bourgeois complacency.
The almost imperceptible shifting of the light outside the Longstreets’ window as the day goes on reps an especially subtle touch, while Alexandre Desplat’s music, underscoring the central theme with chordal progressions and drumbeats, is wisely used only to bookend the picture.