Reviews from Venice:
Polanski’s filmmaking is effortless and mostly invisible, interested in the actors hitting the right gestures at the precise moment, containing or spiking each exclamation, with the form of Carnage left to continuity and keeping the talker and movers in frame, the pacing in check. (Only Waltz is allowed some physical presence in the frame, with a notable exception being any moment when Winslet feels nauseous, one of the film’s triumphs, but at those points the film…clearly…is…setting…the…stage…for…physicality.) With the filmmaking placidly seamless the cast is likewise perfect, perfect at rising to the cliches that have been written for them, pushing them just a bit over the brink of absurdity, and holding them back—which will undoubtably lead many to accuse the film, surprisingly, of not going far enough, lacking the truest bitter edge, the harshest, freshest vision of humanity (as all stories about people stuck in rooms must be about humanity).
But what that criticism misses is the enjoyment of Carnage, not just that it is enjoyable to watch—its weird semi-theatricality and self-awareness of its own generalities adds a subtle, compulsive edge to everyone’s expected scene-chewing—but rather that everyone seems to be secretly enjoying themselves too, actors and characters, that these people cannot leave their conflict because they are having too much enjoyment masking their bitterness, parrying attitudes, revealing secrets,getting angry, and getting drunk as an excuse to cut loose. By devolving into awfulness these people find a kind of communal high in their safe space of hatreds, safe things to hate, safe people to fight with. I remember a lesson from yesterday’s Bene, and perhaps even of Dreyer’s Joan, that corporal solitude leads to death (what kind of death is a different question), and the disappointing and anti-climatic conclusion of Carnage with its distinct lack of death and destruction, only underscores how positively thriving these people are, together.
The gloves come off early and the social graces disintegrate on cue in "Carnage," which spends 79 minutes observing, and encouraging, the steady erosion of niceties between two married couples. But the real battle in Roman Polanski's brisk, fitfully amusing adaptation of Yasmina Reza's popular play is a more formal clash between stage minimalism and screen naturalism, as this acid-drenched four-hander never shakes off a mannered, hermetic feel that consistently betrays its theatrical origins.
Waltz’s surgically timed pauses and inadvertently louche appropriation of others’ space are responsible for the biggest laughs in “Carnage,” perhaps because they seem more explicitly scaled for the medium than anything else in the film. Polanski probably made the right choice in refusing to open the play out for the screen — save for a pedestrian pair of external bookend shots that needlessly contextualize the scrap between the otherwise invisible children — but Pawel Edelman’s lensing aims to outdo the intimacy of the theater experience by getting unflatteringly, claustrophobically close to the actors. It’s a tactic that seems a little over-compensatory when the single most striking shot in the film — a tableaux where all four are caught momentarily distracted from each other — could be contained within the proscenium arch. Swift and savage and so sparing in generosity that it risks selling its smart world-view a little short, the ample pleasures of “Carnage” (title notwithstanding) are those of its source, but it might have found more of its own.
It’s been a while since Polanski’s done an out-and-out comedy (unless you count Pierce Brosnan‘s performance in “The Ghost Writer”—oh, snap!), and the good news is that “Carnage” is very, very funny. The play brought down houses around the world, and the director and his cast hit every beat with expert timing; there are moments here that rival anything we’ve seen in recent years for hilarity. There’s often a darkly funny undertone to Polanski’s work, but this reinforces that he’s got a real knack for comedy, for perhaps the first time since “Fearless Vampire Killers,” and we hope he doesn’t neglect that particular muscle from here on out.
But it’s also a film of very little ambition, a minor entry in the director’s canon. Perhaps it was just the desire to shoot something fast and quick after his brush with justice, which is certainly understandable, but he has essentially taken a pre-existing script, cast four A-listers, locked them in a room, and shot it. There are few directorial flourishes beyond a firmly Polanski-esque opening shot, and almost nothing to enable the identification of the movie as a Polanski picture; for once in his career, it feels like almost anyone could have directed it. It’s not as though the play could have been opened up much, but he really might as well have stuck some cameras in the audience of a stage production. Maybe that approach would have been fine for a more substantial piece, but at best Reza’s material is targeting some fairly low-hanging fruit (upper middle-class hypocrisy, in the main) without adding much to the discussion, and at worst it’s not about much more than the set-up for the next gag. And that’s even ignoring the major issue with the construction of Reza’s piece—there’s no reason for the characters to stay in the room together, except that the writer decides they should.
Roman Polanski as often been at his best in close quarters -- the small yacht of Knife in the Water, the Warsaw ghetto of The Pianist, the house in The Ghost Writer, the apartments in Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant -- so it should be no surprise that he's right at home examining the venality of the human condition in the living room of the Brooklyn apartment that serves as the setting for Carnage. Snappy, nasty, deftly acted and perhaps the fastest paced film ever directed by a 78-year-old, this adaptation of Yasmina Reza's award-winning play God of Carnage fully delivers the laughs and savagery of the stage piece while entirely convincing as having been shot in New York, even though it was filmed in Paris for well-known reasons.
Reza's diagram of devolution might be made for Polanski — if its satire weren't so timid. Dramatic logic might at least require that by the end the two men are fighting, as their sons had. But Carnage only skates on the surface of such de-profundis dramas as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, or virtually any play by Harold Pinter, or The Lord of the Flies. For the ultimate satire of decivilization, see Luis Buñuel's 1963 film The Exterminating Angel, in which guests at a posh dinner party find they can't leave, anarchy slowly ensues, one couple commits suicide and sheep wander in to be slaughtered and cooked for food. How's that for a last supper?
Reza isn't up to such grand misanthropy. Nor does she have the skill to trace a plausible course from the human to the beastly. Michael, the most amiable of the four, suddenly reveals that he threw out his daughter's pet hamster; apparently he'd never told Penelope that he just hates hamsters. Alan keeps getting cell-phone calls about a fast-developing crisis in his business — but he'd rather stick around and argue with his wife and the Longstreets. And if the four main characters are meant to personify the decline of Western civ, Polanski's one significant addition to the play undercuts that dour generalization.