Dir. Roman Polanski, France/Germany/Poland/ Spain, 2011, 80 mins
Review by Carol Allen
Set in New Yorkbut filmed in Europeby Roman Polanski, this film version of Yasmina Reza’s play The God of Carnage is a claustrophobic study of the “teeth and claws” beast that lurks beneath our supposed civilised exterior.
Two couples meet for an ostensibly sensible and grown up discussion over an incident involving their children. Nancy (Winslet) and Alan’s (Walz) son has had a bit of a set to with Penelope (Foster) and Michael’s (Reilly) little treasure, which has resulted in the latter losing a tooth. With US dentistry bills being what they are, one could understand that this might perhaps upset the parents on a financial level. Though looking at their Manhattan apartment, where the action takes place, which would definitely go on the market as “luxury”, we can assume they can afford a good dentist. Penelope in particular, who has organised the meeting, is determined to make political capital out of the incident, portraying her child as the victim and the other child as the bully.Nancyis at first conciliatory, her husband obviously there on sufferance. But after initial pleasantries are exchanged and home made fruit cobbler is offered – a delicacy to which Nancy’s very dramatic physical reaction arguably expresses her true feelings about the meeting – the gloves are off, as in ostensibly defending their children, the four characters reveal the prejudices, contradictions, stupidities and primal urges which lurk beneath their ultra civilised middle class exteriors.
Apart from the opening and closing sequences, where we see the children in the distance in Brooklyn Park, Polanski makes no attempt to open the text up from its stage origins, apart from a couple of excursions into the bathroom and the hallway outside the flat, which is as far as the visitors seem able to get before being drawn back inexorably into the next round of verbal carnage. This is a study in human behaviour trapped in an enclosed environment, not unlike the situation of Sartre’s characters trapped in the hell of each other in Huis Clos. And it’s played out beautifully by four first class actors. Foster in particular is hateful as the smug, do-gooding, ultra politically correct Penelope with her carefully honed passion for African art, and the antipathy that quickly develops between her and cynical, work obsessed businessman Alan, who is never off his blasted mobile phone, is tangible. The apparently conciliatory Nancy and amiable Michael also have their dark side, particularly when they all start swigging Michael’s secret stash of malt whisky.
The set up is admittedly somewhat artificial and indeed theatrical. But it is so well done, often so achingly funny and also uncomfortable, as we recognize ourselves in the hypocrisies of the characters that one can forgive that. Ms Reza is making a point about the human condition and she makes it sharply and elegantly.