Dir. Roman Polanski
(2011, R, 79 min)

Carnage is a sour, misanthropic slog through bourgeois recriminations. It’s directed by Roman Polanski and written by Polanski and Yasmina Reza, based on her Tony-winning play God of Carnage. It stars Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as an upper-middle-class New York couple, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as an upper-upper-middle-class couple, who meet after their respective sons are involved in a playground fight. I believe we’re meant to take Foster and Reilly as the poorer pair, because she’s a writer and he sells plumbing supplies (Waltz and Winslet are in civil law and finance, respectively), but given the size and style of their New York apartment, where the film takes place, and her obsession with limited edition, out-of-print art books, an air of affluence hangs over them as well. They all pride themselves on their maturity in the face of their kids’ violent altercation, but before long their strained pleasantry breaks down and they reveal themselves to be bitter malcontents.

Polanski and Reza’s thesis seems to be that we are all monsters beneath our thin veils of civilized behavior, but I don’t like artists who make such facile pronouncements about their characters and, by extension, their audiences, because they do so from on high, sitting on a comfortable perch to explain to us who we are without implicating themselves. It’s the same reason I disliked Jonathan Franzen‘s smug novel Freedom, which was also about hypocrites being hypocritical while Franzen congratulated himself for pointing out their hypocrisy. But the novel was more than five-hundred pages long and took me a month to read, while Carnage is only 79 minutes, so there’s that at least.

The couples at first ally against each other, and then the women against the men, but their fluctuating sympathies don’t reveal much about class, gender, or marriage – they’re just different permutations of yelling, strenuously performed by a cast that so invites us to hate them that even they seem to be asserting their superiority to the characters they’re playing. There’s no one to relate to in this tiresome pageant of privileged whining, and nowhere for our sympathy to go, except maybe to their sons, who are shown from a distance at the beginning of the film and again at the end. We have to put up with these people for less than an hour-and-a-half. The kids have to do it for a lifetime.

 

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