It was in the fabric of the late, great Luis Bunuel’s filmography that the moral code of the bourgeoisie was so systemically dissected and tossed around, the personality of the religious right and its indignant defenders placed under the microscope for scrutinisation that was in equal parts mired in contempt and bemused admiration. This beguiled, observational stance is exemplified in the title of one of Bunuel’s stronger experiments – “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, in which a group of friends attempt to convene at leisure on repeated occasions, only to find themselves obstructed time and again by myriad interjections. These intrusions serve as ruptures in the social consciousness of the characters, acting as a allegories for harsh truths that disallowed for the comfortable ignorance so vehemently sought. The film’s inverse, “The Exterminating Angel”, saw a larger crop of – ahem – sheep drawn from the upper class, this time attempting to instead escape the confines of one specific building and in failing to do so eventually shedding themselves of societal norms, reverting to their repressed, animalistic instincts. Both features were high points in the career of Bunuel, who had himself been unfairly ostracised, exiled and at the mercy of many a hypocrite at the more privileged side of the social spectrum.
Roman Polanski too, is a director that has found himself on the receiving end of wagging fingers and accusations, although not without good reason. With ‘Carnage’, Polanski has sought to drag a microcosm of crime – the attack of one schoolboy against another – and observe the way in which the parents of each child choose to lay the blame, to define justice and as a consequence how to mete out this justice. It sounds deceptively simple and from a brief synopsis a seemingly uninspired and potentially dull concept for a film, but Polanski arrives to the scene of the chamber piece armed with a script – based on Yasmina Reza’s ‘God of Carnage’ play – that sees each line charged with hypocrisy, double-meanings and telling suppressions that spill out over time. Here we have the restrictions reminiscent ‘The Exterminating Angel’ that force these two sets of parents to begin as congenial acquaintances and steadily devolve into bickering children; at the same time, the influence of ‘The Discreet Charm…’ comes into play by way of the distractions inherent to 21st century life, most of them consumerist playthings that the ‘adults’ visibly prize more than most else: phones, art, trousers etc. All different in many ways but placed on a pedestal that disrupts any semblance of reasoned debate.
Civility is the starting point, dressed up in the delicately styled New York flat of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) Longstreet, coloured in low-key lighting and swum through with the aid of a Steadicam. If there is a binary at work here, then this couple are the ‘liberal’ pair: he the chirpy, compromising husband disguising a cynicism and mediocrity that enables him to bend to the whim of his wife, who most definitely wears the trousers and the intellectual high-ground. Within the confines, or indeed prison, of their apartment living room, they find themselves face-to-face with the parents of the boy who – to put in Penelope’s victimised terms – ‘brutalised’ their own son. Kate Winslet plays the icy, staunch Nancy Cowan whose tendency to spew both words and vomit is hardly unhindered; her husband, Alan, is portrayed by Christoph Waltz with commendable subtlety, standing amidst a crowd of knee-jerk screams and accusations with a barely animated expression on his countenance that gives no clue as to whether he’s secretly forming a conclusion or just plain disinterested. His savvy refusal to lay all cards on the table is what protects him from the whirlwind slowly forming in the dialogue between his wife and the opposing couple, as strangers quickly become adversaries by way of tongue slips, offhand comments and a ravenous deconstruction of one another’s character traits, tendencies and weaknesses. As if we hadn’t figured much of it out already, each player reaches a point where they draw out the motivations from their foe into the centre of the acting space for all to see. And if the social politics of the conflict weren’t interesting enough, things quickly turn to questions of masculinity before arriving at sexual politics, as each couple helplessly turns on itself.
The deconstruction of language, with all its signs and signifiers, as a means to control and manipulate the narrative of events, is always a fascinating topic and one perfectly suited to the arena of a chamber piece. The film is not without its contrivances, however, with few of them devised as a means to spice up proceedings and allow for a break in the monotony. These moments come at such instances when Alan and Nancy veer off into the corridor on three separate occasions in an attempt to leave. What’s contrived is not so much their trajectory but the way in which the other couple manages to coax them inside again and again, despite Alan’s insistence that he has much work to fulfil. It’s a minor niggle, but it points toward another distraction at the other end of the spectrum. Alcohol is the drink one level up from coffee, the uninhibiting potion that has you sit back in your seats long after you’ve resigned yourself to a hasty exit. Its appearance here in the third act aids the characters further in ranting forthwith with all manner of secrets and home truths, accelerating the script into hysterical, melodramatic convulsions that can’t allow for a return to the hitherto ‘reasoned’ debate that proved a far more interesting exchange through what it held back or, indeed, let slip through the cracks.
From the man that brought us ‘Repulsion’, Polanski is no stranger to the suffocating potential of the apartment. With a mise-en-scene and lighting (intentionally) neat as this, and with a film whose foundations lie fundamentally with a script over any inherently cinematic preouccpations. Any roaming of the camera follows strictly through narrow spaces, whereas the interior is tracked through a long string of shots that focus on the telling faces of each actor, whose responsibility it is to deliver their character’s words and expressions with the all the tension and dichotomy demanded of them. One can only imagine the continuity checks involved in something like this, so indebted and well-suited to the confines of a theatre stage; but then, no longer so enclosed and with a fourth wall opened up to the audience, as part of a stage commonly held to be the defunct, one and only domain of action, it becomes apparent that the cinematic properties afforded to ‘Carnage’ in this context grant it a uniquely claustrophobic atmosphere.