Veteran director Roman Polanski has crafted a notable canon of tight, claustrophobic thrillers, so it comes as no surprise that he ended up filming Yasmin Reza’s stage play Le Dieu Du Carnage. That play was an acerbic four hander set entirely in a New York apartment, where two sets of parents come together to discuss a minor violent incident between their children. In the first scene, we see a gang of young boys by a river side taunt a solitary child, who in turn lashes out at another with a stick.
But Carnage isn’t really interested in the children, moreso the four ‘adults’ who bicker between themselves in a manner that is purely playground. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C Reilly) are the young victims parents, an apparently down to earth pair, though Penelope has cultural pretensions and Michael a laissez faire attitude to life. In contrast, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christophe Waltz) are a professional couple with demanding jobs. One of the stars of the film is Alan’s mobile phone, constantly ringing as he recites dubious legal advice to murky pharmaceutical companies.
Carnage delights and viciously picks at the contrasts, flaws and hypocrisies in the four protagonists arguments and lives. Each couple fights their corner at the beginning, unwilling to accept full responsibility for the violent incident. As the stakes raise higher, however, alliances break up and new ones are formed, husband to wife, man to man, woman to woman. Each character has their own little blindspot which Reza seizes on and pulls at, leaving no stone unturned. Status, morality, parenthood, marriage and life in general is all fair game for a group of people at the end of their tether.
Befitting it’s stage origins, Carnage is an actors film, and fortunately Polanski has assembled a strong bunch. Foster is so committed you worry she’ll burst a blood vessel, as Penelope becomes increasingly hysterical as her controlled facade falls apart. Winslet destroys the scenery (literally), Waltz is deliciously slimy and sauve, while Reilly plays with his everyman, nice guy image to great effect. With a lesser cast it would have fallen flat, but they all excel.
Strangely, you hardly remember this is a Polanski film by the end, such is the efficiency and discretion with which he directs. Polanski recognises the strengths of the project are the actors and the dialogue, and gives them the freedom to let rip. Yes, this isn’t a project that utilises the medium to its fullest, but it’s bringing to a whole new audience a deliciously vitriolic satire on modern family life and status. For that we should be grateful.