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13.1.12

For Your Consideration: 'Carnage'

To my great disappointment, my prediction that the Swiss government would extradite American film director Roman Polanski to face charges in California was incorrect. As I said then, one can like Polanski's movies and still want him to answer these questions in court, but it looks unlikely that it will ever happen, although opinion in France, where he lives, may be turning against him. Even so, it seemed to be going too far, even for Polanski, when last month he referred to his detention in Switzerland, while the extradition claim was being sorted out by the courts, as "my sabbatical year." In the same interview, he said that his project during that time was the adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play, Le Dieu du Carnage, into a screenplay for his new film, called Carnage. Here is what Polanski said attracted him to the play:
The play was very entertaining for me, as was the fact that it was a satire of conventional bourgeois values, of the politically correct, and of the hypocrisy of social politeness with its fake smiles. These four characters, so friendly at the start, each reveal themselves as monsters in their own way, ready by the end to leap at each others' throats. I have two children who are 18 and 13 years old, and it has happened to me, the same situation in which the film's protagonists find themselves. I know what it's like to get a call from the school or the other parents and to have to try to sort these problems.
The story turns on a very theatrical concept, a plot unified, in the Aristotelian sense, by time, location, and action. Two couples come together in a well-appointed New York apartment to sort out an incident between their two middle school-aged sons, involving an insult and a swung stick. By a force perhaps not unlike that which prevented the three souls of Sartre's Huis clos from leaving each other's company, the visiting couple makes several attempts to leave the apartment. They never do, however, long after all hope of the story not feeling contrived is lost. They seem impelled to unload the worst details of their inner motivations and petty cruelty, but without having any plausible reason to do so.

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There is certainly entertainment to be had in the performances, as four actors, fused into a tight ensemble, are clearly having fun acting out some of humanity's worst impulses -- their politically correct pieties (Jodie Foster), slavish obsession with work and smartphone (Christoph Waltz), tight-lipped officiousness (Kate Winslet), and false profundity (John C. Reilly). Polanski told the same interviewer that Foster was the first actor attached to the project, followed by Winslet. He cast the men last, but they fit well into the overall picture. Sadly, though, in spite of an epic vomiting scene by Winslet and some acidic one-timers on all sides, the brutality of the film is not as sharp-edged as it could be. At least if the hatred among the four were more believably vitriolic, one could believe that Winslet and Waltz's characters are staying out of a sick fascination. Mostly, one wonders why they never get tired of the tedious adversity -- and their own embarrassing behavior, not least having spewed chunks of cobbler on the other couple's coffee table books -- to decide just to leave.

Carnage opens today at theaters in the Washington area.

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