Monday 30 January 2012

Shut UP already: "Carnage"

The trouble with house arrest may be not that it shuts you in, but that it shuts the rest of the world out. Roman Polanski's last film, the bafflingly overrated The Ghost, confined itself to a fortress on an indistinct shore with no particular sense of place beyond it, an abstraction - whether intentional or otherwise - that removed the project of its original satirical bite. His latest, Carnage, unfolds in the exiled director's idea of a contemporary New York apartment, where two couples have been brought together by the misbehaviour of their offspring to discuss what disciplinary steps need to be taken. One of these couples (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) are cuddly, besweatered liberal types - she's a part-time writer, he sells kitchen goods - whose son has been struck in the face by another boy. The other (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) are hard-edged corporate professionals whose son, perhaps inevitably, did the hitting.

The meeting begins with smiles, forced or otherwise, and offers of cobbler; it descends, you guessed it, into the state suggested by the title, the elders proving themselves more verbose in their abuse, but ultimately no better than their violent progeny. The source is God of Carnage, a play by the French dramatist Yasmina Reza, which I'm told was very funny in its original form, delighting theatregoers worldwide, even occasioning a Parisian production starring Isabelle Huppert, which might have been worth seeing. Yet the problem lurking in this scenario - which Reza and Polanski, in their screen adaptation, fail to address - is that it requires us to engage with (or just stay in the same room as) four fundamentally unsympathetic crash test dummies - two outright contemptuous of everyone else about them, two painfully pinched, pious and passive-aggressive - or, alternatively, to give into the kind of misanthropy fomented in those cities where the play has been a huge success, and merely sneer one's way through these eighty minutes, feeling thoroughly superior to all those assembled on the stage.

Polanski takes the latter option, because he's aware it requires less effort than trying to get us to identify with Reza's flimsy characterisations. He can still bus in the blue-chip collaborators - Dean Tavoularis's production design gives the film whatever sense of place it has - but essentially they're just here to throw scatter cushions and a veil of good middlebrow taste over the rote, gratingly one-note performances and the mechanics of Reza's plotting, which has to find reasons to keep these mutually opposed people in the same room, and then, by way of heightening and prolonging the agony, to get them all doubly spiteful with drink. The stale Polanski-Reza idea of comedy lingers in this room like an old man's fart: there's no sign the director has seen Reilly in Step Brothers - a far sharper treatise on the childishness of grown adults - where I think Lynne Ramsay, in casting the actor in a near-identical role for her darkly comic We Need to Talk About Kevin, may just have done. A running gag is that Waltz's phone keeps going off; Winslet, meanwhile, projectile vomits onto a stack of rare art catalogues. If this is what a funny and sophisticated night's entertainment is meant to look like, give me Brian Rix.

has but one moment to commend it, and it comes early, on the banks of the Hudson, where we observe from a distance the incident that sparked this contretemps: boy one takes a swing at boy two with a tree branch before - in the film's one truly inspired gesture - petulantly kicking over his opponent's bike upon his departure from the scene. This flashpoint, which requires an exterior shot, and may therefore have been handed over to an assistant director, has the dimensions of hard truth about it, and is almost enough to make one wish the film had pursued these kids rather than their parents, however restricted Polanski may have been by this. Everything that follows from moving indoors is phoniness incarnate, the hollow and hateful work of a filmmaker who's long since fled the real world, enacted by performers who've long since moved beyond their characters' tax brackets, for the benefit of audiences all too safely ensconced in their own personal purdah of smug.

Carnage opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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