Carnage – Roman Polanski (2011 Fr, Ger, Pol. Sp) Jodie Foster, Christopher Waltz, Kate Winslett, John Riley
Viewed: Tyneside Film Theatre 16 Feb 12; ticket price £8.00
carnage = verbiage
I think that the failure of Carnage and Polanski (RP) is that the film never makes the audience feel uncomfortable. Either with the film or with themselves. It’s relentless blandness makes it comfortable viewing for the arts film set. RP sticks relentlessly to the surface of a script which, as a comedy of manners, holds out for our inspection two married couples as stereotyped representatives of contemporary professional strata.
I think the event which triggers the situation is wonderfully chosen; the assault by the son of one of the married couples upon the other’s boy. Following the incident, the consequent visit by the perpetrator’s parents to the victim’s parents provides a psychic and emotional setting for a penetration beneath the visible surface of the protagonists. It sets up a possible scripting, both filmic and in dialogue, where conflict, ambiguities, ambivalences, competition, uncertainties can be explored; where states of mind and body can be probed and brought into play.
But in Carnage, with everything primed, nothing critical happens at any level. By the end it feels it as if these people didn’t really exist: except as dialogue bubbles. Not flesh and blood but a series of attitudes and opinions defined by a stream of scripted positions that starts to resemble after a time, the delivery of amateur theatrics.
Although occupying similar middle class positions, the couples represent quite different strata within this broad category. One couple are corporate in ethos; the other a mix of aspirational blue collar sales and creative careerist, whose income and artistic identity has levelled them out as arrivist bourgeoisie. The tensions of the two different strata are occasionally visible, as when the two men exchange dialogue about toilet flushing mechanisms, but overall this is not a seam of tension or ambiguity the script explores.
Carnage rather prefers to reinforce the specifically America notion that these people are all basically the same, and all subscribe to the same value systrem and live under the same American moral and legal codex. So that’s Ok then, it ain’t about strata/class, Carnage is going to reassure its audience that these differences are not significant in contemporary US urban experience. So what happens?
The script tails into an excuse for a number of running jokes: the mobile telephone, the hamster joke, the vomit joke and the Africa and good intentions joke. Each of the running jokes concerns one of the four characters, but the jokes never really take on a life an intensity a immanence that marks them out as a realm of experience. None of the jokes amplifies or becomes filmically real, even when the bleed of the corporate lawyers (Allan) conversation about drug trials reveals that Mike’s mother is taking a potentially hazardous drug. The information is assimilated and after commencing with a preliminary spike, in the end the drug issue is pleasantly dealt with to the satisfaction of all. Everything is eventually pleasantly resolved and perhaps this is the point of the film: to show that contemporary Americans are pleasant non violent beings whose principle objective is conflict resolution with minimum pain. The avoidence of anything real like unpleasantness. Perhaps RP hopes that his own little contretemps with the US law enforcement agencies might be so engagingly resolved.
The debate about the respective roles of their sons in the incident takes a circuitous route visiting the same issue and resolving different solutions. The proceedings involve multiple exits and re-entrance’s for the visiting couple which reminded me a little of the Avenging Angel, but without Bunuel’s moral passion and dark humour. It also brought to mind a sort of parody of the US legal system: a soft parody of the endless repetitions, adjournments, characteristic the US legal circus.
Technically the film’s insipidity was re-inforced by the manner chosen by RP to edit the material. Most of the cuts in ‘the shot -reaction shot sequences’ which typify the film’s stimulus response structure, are hard cut, either on the first phonome of the response or within a couple of frames of the reply. The film is typified by a lack of space, a lack of significance given to any other input other than the dialogue. The preponderance of hard cutting into the dialogue turns the players into robotic acting machines voicing out preprepared positions. At the start of the film this might work; but as the dynamics develop, there is a failure to introduce any other film scripting resource into the development of the situation. RP used to understand how to handle mood and silence, the resonance of image and the somatic physical traits of the actors. He seems to have forgotten. In Carnage there is little sign of RP’s filmic muscularity. RP seemed happy to let the whole project slide into soap opera, characterised by playing the material for cheaply won laughs. Where provocations such as the drowning the mobile phone, the hurling of the handbag to the floor might have brought to the surface undercurrents of a repressed psychosexual violence, in Carnage they simply come across as moments of theatre: theatrical parentheses of humour. The audience can cope with a bit of cheap theatre; it doesn’t disturb us.
Perhaps that’s RP’s point. America exists somehow to reassure not to frighten. But to get that message somewhere at some point in Carnage we need to feel or to see what is manifestly absent: fear.