How can you be an expatriate from your adopted country? Polish-born Roman Polanksi, once married to Charles Manson victim Sharon Tate, has had a, shall we say, complex relationship to the United States, from which he has been a fugitive for more than thirty years on a morals conviction. Polanski now says he did something stupid in seducing a thirteen-year-old girl, which is one way to put it, and the middle-aged lady in question (as she now is) says, after collecting a pretty penny in damages, that she bears him no ill will. The whole episode recalls the Cold War effort to bar Charlie Chaplin, the greatest film artist ever to work in America, on similar grounds. Some things never change, the Puritan ethic among them.
Polanski nonetheless remains intrigued by America, and has a singularly sharp eye for it as he demonstrated in such classics as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. Those, as you may recall, were films about people who were not what they seemed to be; and the director’s two latest efforts, The Ghost Writer and Carnage, both set in America though shot elsewhere, are similarly themed. Scratch a Puritan and you find, well, if not necessarily the Devil as in Rosemary, someone quite different from what he or she purports to be.
Polanski, like Ingmar Bergman, has never been a great outdoor director; his landscape is the human face. Carnage, adapted from Yasmina Reza’s stage play The God of Carnage, takes place in a single room in a Brooklyn condominium over an eighty-minute span, bookended only by two static exterior shots in which the camera remains fixedly in place as a tableau unfolds. Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) are the householders, he a wholesaler of fancy fixtures and she a liberal do-gooder who, not sufficiently well-to-do to buy gallery art, collects rare and pricey art books instead. Their son, Zachary, has been swatted in a playground dispute by Ethan, the son of Alan (Christopher Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet). Alan is a Wall Street attorney, and Nancy seems busy being Nancy. The two couples—or, rather, the two wives—decide to make peace rather than reflexively litigate, and the film opens with all four spouses agreeing to the text of a written statement describing the incident in question. Propriety then requires them to cement the agreement with small talk and light refreshment. Alan offers to pay the dental bill, and Michael graciously declines, saying that his insurance will cover it. There’s a bit of class sparring here, because Alan is obviously someone who can afford the art Penelope can only look at in reproduction, and Michael wants Alan to the know that, humble tradesman though he may be, he hasn’t got the kind of deadbeat insurance that will walk out on the first claim.
The two men aren’t the problem, though, because they quietly share the macho premise that playground fights should be settled on the playground, and that peace treaties are a little over the top. Alan’s cellphone keeps ringing, emphasizing his detachment from the proceedings (as well as from his wife), and the small talk doesn’t go well. Alan is a troglodyte capitalist, and his indifference to the suffering in Darfur or anywhere else appalls Penelope. The refreshment—Penelope’s special-recipe pastry—brings indigestion, and Michael’s single-malt Scotch fuels a general breakdown of civility, Virginia Woolf-style, with each couple not only shredding the other but stripping its own marital gears as well. The men will keep some remnant of male kinship, but Penelope is clearly a grenade ready to explode, and Nancy is only a beat behind.
Since no one is going to get killed here—unlike many of Polanski’s films, broken crockery is the limit of actual destruction—Carnage requires tight ensemble acting and split-second timing from both cast and director. Fortunately, all involved deliver. Filmed stage plays, even tweaked a bit, almost always lose focus and energy because the generalized camera eye can’t replace the subjective one that leads us to follow first one thing and then another in an actual theater. But Polanski’s eye is quicker and shrewder than anyone’s, and as Kate Winslet has commented about working with him, he exerts total control in a confined space. Thus, as four adults disintegrate, we sense a steady gaze that holds everyone in profoundly ironic perspective.
Carnage is minor Polanksi, a comedy of manners about how manners get unwound, and pain reveals itself in absurdity. Perhaps it will help you take your next spat (or your last one) less seriously. That in itself is salutary—it was for me.