Carnage’s opening credits almost double as a challenging distraction, to the tune of Alexandre Desplat’s pleasant enough score, as an otherwise innocuous incident between two boys occurs in the background, the lessening proximity between camera and action subtly priming us of its significance to come. Though we may have missed it happening, we learn quickly hereafter that one of the boys hit the other with a stick; the resulting 75 minutes or so follow both boys’ parents, two couples meeting for the first time due to unforeseen reasons neither of them would’ve liked.
But for the single-take exteriors that bookend it, the film is set entirely in the Longstreets’ Brooklyn apartment: Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) have invited Cowans Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) to discuss whether or not Zachary Cowan owes the hosts’ son Ethan an apology for attacking and injuring him. Temporally and spatially removed from the incident itself, the grown-ups collectively work on typing up an assessment they can agree upon… only, from the off, an agreement eludes them.
Polanski, adapting with Yasmina Reza from her own play The God of Carnage, wastes no time in hinting at grudges and complexes brimming beneath a cordial existence. Just as the aspired homeliness of the Longstreets’ apartment is undone by the considered pretensions of its owners – art books decorate coffee tables – words are uttered strategically, the agenda they embody understood and unacknowledged. In the first scene proper, Penelope suggests the typed-up agreement refers to Zachary as “armed” and to her son Ethan as “disfigured”, as if it were the work of some governmental conspiracy.
Indeed, before it turns into a (probably) more naturalistic version of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the initial concerns here are the extent to which Zachary is accountable, whether or not his treatment is punitive or reparative, and the form of his apology to Ethan, not to mention the means by which his sincerity in doing so is to be graded. “Offender” Zachary and “victim” Ethan, of course, are never given a say in the matter, as these adults elevate themselves to the level of moral negotiation, barely equipped to deal with their own individual neuroses gnawing within.
Having responsibilities for your actions imposed upon you by others: the appeal to Polanski of adapting this thematic premise shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the details of his personal life, though given that the voiceless parties here are merely children, it might be premature to read the allegory too literally. Or, put the opposite way, if he fancies the story as one lending currency to his own predicament, it seems to be something of a misjudgement on his part. Furthermore, if the director has found, in the petty judgements and overall indifference that help strip away the superficial diplomacy of his central quartet, metaphors for the opportunistic judicial system and accompanying right-wing media that have hounded him in recent years, we might note that his chosen targets seem too convenient and the jokes he emphasises too easy.
That said, even without genuine dramatic nuance, this is an excellent comedy. To it, Polanski brings his sharp directorial detail, ensuring it allays from the outset any fears of “filmed theatre”: one-shots and two-shots fragment the otherwise fluid choreography, while a succession of close-ups isolates first this character, then that character. Typically, the reason why the Cowans are in the apartment is forgotten once tensions erupt into the inter- and intra-personal conflicts of marriage, with sexual politics and gender divisions framed by wider hints at political compromisism and petty bourgeois disinterest.
Foster and Waltz are standouts, but also perhaps the most digestible as types. Winslet and Reilly possibly have more to deal with. It isn’t long before the foursome’s ambitions to arrange if not force some reconcilement between their sons gives way to individual reservations. Penelope’s recognisable motherly protectiveness, for instance, makes her take Zachary’s attack personally, and her pursuit of some justice appears more and more to be a way of her returning to ideals and principles long ago abandoned. Husband Michael, meanwhile, is keen to re-embrace his forgotten youth and a “boys will be boys” mentality once Nancy drowns the hosts’ coffee table in anxious vomit.
As a kind of natural defence mechanism, Michael becomes understandably standoffish when Alan shows a sarcastic interest in the banal details of what he does for a living: Alan has clearly seen enough of himself in his counterpart to know that loaded hints towards the socially perceived gulf between their respective careers (one sells bathroom furniture, the other works for a big pharmaceutical firm) will touch a nerve in Michael.
Alan’s own moment of outrage is one more of impotence, when Nancy throws his phone into a vase of water, though judging by the comparative ease with which Alan accepts its fate, the real victim might be the phone, or communication itself, which is both aided and obstructed by technology in the film (Haneke territory but for its sense of humour). One upshot of Nancy’s moment of power is that it cuts short the film’s best running gag: that of Alan having one sermon after another welcomingly interrupted by his vibrating cell. Waltz oozes effortless nonchalance as he takes each call more often than not with the business-calls greeting: “Yes hello Walter.” It’s funny and measured.