Carnage / Roman Polanski / 2011 /

Active Ingredients: Waltz & Reilly; Comedy; Sharp satire
Side Effects: Jodie Foster; Transition scenes

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[A gala presentation of Carnage opens the New York Film Festival today.]

Carnage could be seen as novelty in Polanski’s career, one of the only pure comedies. Then again, it fits right in with the rest of his work, using the apartment as a setting to observe presumably well-balanced people reveal their many faults. Though the results are perhaps less horrific in Carnage then, say, Rosemary’s Baby, it’s strengths lie in its sharp characterization of its four leads, all outwardly “nice” people, all inwardly despicable. That may sound tiring, but Polanski and his actors have so much fun eviscerating their characters and revealing their hypocrisy that it’s hard not to join in.

Full of delicious cynicism, Carnage is based on a play by Yasmina Reza. Stage adaptations have historically had problems rendering the theatrical cinematic, and though the form of Carnage is restrictive – it has only four characters, it’s in real time and shot in one location – Polanski enjoys working under these restraints and delivers a lean 80 minute film. He does nothing flashy, but I loved the way the camera begins to subtly unwind as the characters devolve.

The film is about two sets of upper-class cosmopolitan parents meeting to discuss an altercation that occurred between their sons. They try to be polite, but things quickly spiral out of control as their cultural, political and moral failings are revealed. Talky stage adaptations like these live and die on the strengths of their performances, and the ensemble here works nicely. The men (John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz) acquit themselves better than the women (Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster), but that may also be because Polanski and Reza give them a more subtle descent into contemptibility. The script is very funny and moves nicely, but there are a few hiccups in transitional scenes where dialogue seems planted to keep the characters together. Carnage isn’t batting 100%, but it gets enough right to make for an interesting addition to Polanski’s body of work.

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