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Written by: Roman Polanski and Yazmina Reza, adapted from Reza’s play “God of Carnage”

Directed by: Roman Polanski

Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz

Roman Polanski’s Carnage is about as savage a film as is possible, considering the circumstances. In a static opening shot, Zachary is taunted by a group of children and when Ethan grabs at him Zachary instinctually swings around and clocks Ethan in the jaw with a branch.  Zachary’s parents Nancy and Alan Cowen (Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz) pay a visit to Ethan’s parents Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster & John C. Reilly)  in an effort to make ammends between the boys and settle any damages. Indeed, this will turn into the most vicious, passive-aggressively brutal afternoon of their lives.

It is the details that make Carnage so compelling. Penelope is a writer and an art enthusiast, but we all know that no coffee table is meant to hold quite so many coffee table art books. When Nancy notices the book about Francis Bacon, it is not long before Penelope draws her attention to the much more obscure Kokoschka and Foujita books (It’s worth pointing out that these artists all paint grotesque and sinister portraits of humanity). It is clear that Penelope’s every effort is screaming “Yes! But don’t you see how smart I am?!?” and when Nancy gets ill, we can well imagine where her vomit ends up. Alan’s cellphone is constantly vibrating throughout the afternoon and he insists on taking every call as obnoxiously as possible. The vibrate function on a cellphone may be the least successful mechanism in the world, because what was designed to be less obtrusive has become the single most grating noise in the world. The muffled buzzing noise of Alan’s phone, dozens of times during the course of the film, is a constant, horrible reminder of just how patronizing he is being. None of the snide digs, bring-downs and blow-ups would be concievable if it weren’t for the unbelievable performances from all four stars. As The Cowen’s, Winslet and Waltz are brilliantly smug and stilted, and as Michael, Reilly is, as always, the perfect amount of pathetic. The most impressive turn comes from Foster, whose emotional range as Penelope flings wildly from calm to manic to savage to desperate to inconsolable and on and on.

Polanski delivers great work here all around, constructing an intense and compelling visual experience but there is one thing in particular that I want to discuss. Polanski goes out of his way to evoke the films of Michael Haneke, in particular Cache (2005) and Funny Games (1997), and I had a tough time sorting out what to make of that. I am well aware that critics of Haneke’s work often cite those two exact films as evidence that he is a gimmicky and manipulative filmmaker who relies on cheap tricks to force hollow points. It’s criticism that I don’t agree with at all, but I take it as a valid way to read his body of work, and it’s the reading I believe Polanski is offering with Carnage. Static shots at the begining and end of Carnage, the only two shots we see outside the Longstreet’s apartment, are an unmistakable reference to the static shots that open and close Cache. In that film Haneke observes a family who finds out they are being observed, and indeed recorded, information which makes them act like ants under a glass and which leads to tragedy. In Funny Games two men invade a vacation home and proceed to torture a family for fun, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge the viewer and do all sorts of other meta stuff. I think Polanski, with this film, is callling bullshit on Haneke, and suggesting that the same sort of squirmy horror is possible without having to resort to gimmicky meta shenanigans. Polanski offers not one but two families pulling apart at the seams as the result of an ambiguous act, and the home invasion in Carnage, though relatively innocuous, is certainly more organic than the one in Funny Games but with comparably destructive results. So what’s the point? Why does Polanski bother inserting a criticism of Michael Haneke into this particular film? Many of Polanski’s films, including The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby and Macbeth have had to do with minds fracturing under pressure, and the family model being torn apart so is he guarding his territory? I don’t know if Polanski is defending a more traditional model of storytelling, or justifying his own career. Possibly both, probably neither. That he is saying something about Haneke is obvious, and truthfully I haven’t reached a satifying conclusion about that, but Polanski’s motivations are beside the point. Carnage is an impeccable, blackly funny chamber drama.

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