“A stylish contrivance”
Roman Polanski is one of my favourite still-living directors and the last time he adapted a stage play it was nothing short of a masterpiece—Death and the Maiden. So I had high hopes for Carnage. I even thought I liked it as I was watching it, but I am left feeling disappointed.
I can’t find fault with either the direction or the performances. The basic concept of the story is solid, and expresses two major themes I find very exciting: (1) Despite modern middle-class urban lifestyles, people cannot escape their barbaric nature. Not to say that we must always act on it, simply that it’s always there and threatening to surface.
(2) With regard to human relationships, everything is connected in ways we can barely guess at. So, your successful or failing marriage is indeed related to your self-image, your nature, your society, your conditioning, etc. And that extends ever outwards. Your choices, your attitudes affect the choices and attitudes of your children, your friends, etc.
These are interesting ideas and could lead to great drama.
Polanski is a master at crafting innovative and gripping cinema within confined spaces. Think back to: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, The Tenent, and Rosemary’s Baby. He has a knack for letting us discover for ourselves whatever tiny and seemingly insignificant element tells the real story. He frequently hides some small, wickedly funny and horrific thing in a corner of the frame, waiting for you. It’s easy to miss, but once you spot it, it means everything and haunts you. He is at the top of his form here, but the script is lacking. Maybe what I’m missing is to be found in the original stage play, or perhaps it was always a weak story.
My issue is this: I have a hard time investing in characters who stay in an unpleasant situation when they are completely free to remove themselves from that situation without losing anything! Either you trap your characters together by some shared obstacle, or else you give them some valid reason to stay. Any of these characters—as they are presented to us—would not choose to escalate the situation presented here. These are well-mannered, civilized, high-society people! Now, the point of the story is that something primal and dangerous lurks underneath that façade, but there must be something at stake for them to reach a point where they allow the civilized furniture of their lives to be dismantled.
Also, it bothers me when a story allows me to completely side with one character over another. Life is complex and messy. Serious stories should acknowledge that messiness. There can only be real tension when you can sympathize with or understand the plight of each person caught up in the conflict. It forces you to be an active participant in the story. It forces you to invest, process and make the narrative personally relevant. In Carnage, I can actually single out and “blame” one character in particular. This rubs me the wrong way. Over and over again, she provokes, and undermines and chastises. Now, I understand where it is coming from. She considers herself the moral center of the group, and is passionate about educating and making people accountable, but her behaviour—and this character is presented as intelligent enough to be able to recognize it!—is simply alienating everyone around her. The other characters are also presented as intelligent and well-adjusted enough recognize this, so there is no reason for them to subject themselves to that behaviour or to retaliate. The necessary understanding—that the characters have come together to reach—is established in the first three minutes! There is no reason for them to tear each other apart and expose their brutality and frailty. Mind you, the potential is there! There could be all sorts of reasons for them to rip away at each other, but the script simply doesn’t show us!
The characters are given many opportunities to go their separate ways with dignity intact, but the script invents cheap moments where the characters just decide to stay together, even after several failed attempts at making the situation better. The whole scenario seems designed to keep these people together just so they can bicker and wax profound about marriage, responsibility, parenting, society, and blah, blah, blah! Rather than suggest any solid motivations, the characters are simply compelled to be antagonistic and defensive. This is lazy, under-developed storytelling. There is no need to spell everything out, but the story should present some insight into why this needs to happen. Polanski deserves more substantial material, and should have an eye for it. Without good content, expert direction can just seem like a cheap parlor trick.
Rather than actually exploring any of the ideas it posits, Carnage contents itself with showcasing nasty behaviour. It’s as if the playwright saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and figured that sophisticated people drinking and yelling at each other was dramatic in and of itself. Suffering and conflict are inevitable, sure, but a story needs to explore the complexities of why and how. Superficially, the two plays are quite similar, but Virginia Woolf is superior because it understands that ideas mean nothing if you can’t invest in them.
Director: Roman Polanksi
Writers: Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski
Stars: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly