Intentional or not, the sly punchline to Roman Polanski’s Carnage calls bullshit on Michael Haneke’s Caché. Both films are meditations on collective guilt, one an allegory for a colonialist France’s relationship to Algeria, the other a disquisition on the degradation of modern discourse. But Carnage rebuts what Armond White accurately, mercifully described as the pretentiously metaphoric Caché‘s “moral listlessness” by insisting on complete transparency. One doesn’t have to look too closely at Carnage‘s final shot to marvel at the way Polanski refuses to haughtily indict his audience in the pettiness of his characters’ behavior.
Wry to its succulently written bone, Carnage, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning God of Carnage, begins on the war zone of a playground, where a dispute between two boys leaves one with two missing teeth and a nerve in his mouth partially exposed. From there, Polanski moves us to another war zone: a warmly posh Brooklyn apartment where the parents of both boys wear at each other’s “sense of community.” Just as the implications of what happened on the playground have been parsed to the satisfaction of all parties and a door has been opened, or an elevator button has been pushed, someone insists on a provocative last word and the dispute resumes. The ego sets no one free.
Almost Buñuelian by design, this satire of decivilization finds Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), parents of the “victimizing” boy, drawn back, over and over again, to the apartment belonging to the “victimized” boy’s parents, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly). Throughout this most uncivil discourse, which plays out almost entirely in Nancy and Alan’s living room, more than words will be hurled back and forth between the bourgeois couples. Everything—day-old cobbler, a bottle of 18-year-old brandy, a persistently ringing cellphone, an out-of-print art book, a dozen yellow tulips, even a spray of vomit—becomes a loaded weapon, a means of justifying one’s allegations and derailing others’ arguments.
The play, it must be said, is not the thing. Though Reza, who co-adapted God of Carnage for the screen with Polanski, shares with Edward Albee an obsession with words as arms and the physicality of the dramatic experience, her vision of domestic warfare is more conventional than the more barbed and surreal surfaces of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, and Seascape. But if there’s little metaphoric weight beneath Carnage‘s war of words, it’s because the play is about surfaces—how our snap judgments are informed by how others dress, how they sit on our furniture, how they arrange their flowers, how often they chose to pick up their phone in mixed company, and what fruit besides peach they put into their cobbler.
Alan and Michael will attack their women because of their sex, forcing Nancy and Penelope to form an allegiance around the time brandy and a box of Cubans initiates a truce between the men, and though Penelope is assailed for her political correctness, and Alan for his lack of it, Reza, unlike too many modern playwrights, doesn’t use her characters to score cheap political points—understanding sex and politics, like Penelope’s cobbler and Alan’s cellphone, as a distraction from the crux of their conflict. Regardless of what their occupations, personal tastes, and overall demeanors may or may not reveal about their values, Penelope, Michael, Nancy, and Alan are equally complicit in the degradation of everything they claim to stand for.
As on Broadway, the acting fleshes out stock characterizations. The cast makes rich sense of the allegiances that repeatedly form and evaporate between the characters, and a ferociously committed Foster, remarkable in the role that won Marcia Gay Harden a Tony, brings to earth what felt on stage like a nerdy caricature of shrill East-Coast liberalism. But the play also benefits from Polanski’s own shrewd perspective. The director, whose films are all about space as a prison, evokes through his unnerving collaging of visual planes along diagonal lines and use of mirrors and windows a spiderweb inside Penelope and Michael’s apartment tangling its victims. His customarily remarkable visual aesthetic gives the couples’ war of semantics the feel of something brutalizingly physical, ensuring that Carnage‘s images, like its words, cut through us like a knife.