I was lucky enough that Roman Polanski’s Carnage happened to be on the telly the other night – and was extremely excited to sit down to see it once more. The truth is, I remembered it being fabulous the first time round but that I hadn’t paid close enough attention to the detail within it. I was delighted for another opportunity to appreciate it – and I was not disappointed.
The film, written by Parisian playwright Yasmina Reza centres on a quarrel between two pairs of parents over the questionable behaviour of their two sons. It is played out in real time, from various perspectives, with the entire set revolving around a single New York apartment and lobby hall. Following a fight between the sons, Zachery and Ethan (only ever seen in a long-distance shot), the parents agree to have a discussion surrounding what could have happened how to move on. As the title suggests, this soon descends into, you guessed it, Carnage. We are treated to some memorable performances from John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz, not to mention Kate Winslet, whose part is notable… But maybe not for the right reasons.
The somewhat taut and anxious opening to the exchange between the parents very quickly loses control and spirals into something both equally horrifying and hilarious in equal measure. Throughout the discourse, people’s priorities change as new sides are taken. What starts out as a challenge from the Longstreets (those whose son was ‘attacked’) to find some remorse from the Cowans for their sons action ends up uncovering each individuals’ true principals – at times Penelope Longstreet (Foster) and Nancy Cowan (Winslet) appear to take sides over their respective husbands, Michael (Reilly) and Alan (Waltz). At others, the married couples support one another in their quest to defend their sons. But the best action, it has to be said, is in the moments where they are all at each others throats, not able to believe how naive, despicable or unreasonable the others are capable of being.
I was reminded, throughout the film, of the ‘Satir Model’ of the family – a psychological construct which helps to explain how roles are developed within the family. Virginia Satir, a US psychiatrist focusing on family therapy, argued that within a family, there are five fundamental roles which are taken on in any sort of crisis or dispute. These are the distractor, the computer, the leveller, the blamer and the placator. At some point throughout the film, each of the four is cast into each of these roles as their ability as a parent, or even as a standard human being, is brought into question. For a film based very clearly on stereotypes, from Foster’s apparently well-meaning and worldly Penelope to the disgusting, never-of-his-phone businessman, Alan, this works to add yet another level of detail to the precedings. Our characters are forced into molds they do not best fit and in having to work around the argument and the other major narrative curves, they are each, in their own way, brought to breaking point. It really does feel as though, as its original title suggests, the God of Carnage really does reign free.
As well as the stunningly stressful performances from the characters we are exposed to, the film also draws people in through a collection of well-executed but standard Polanski visual motifs. For those scenes where the Cowans are desperately trying to escape to the elevator before the argument could get any worse, we are drawn into a long corridor, recognisable from Rosemary’s Baby, the Tenant, Repulsion etc. The use of mirrors and crowded claustrophobic spaces works only to develop the frantic nature of the argument as the film goes on. It feels as if there is no escape. This is tempered by the bland colours of the apartment, which serve to draw the viewer’s eyes to the main action. In doing this, the picture appears to be fuller and more jarring than it should – they are, after all in a family apartment, a space for nourishing and caring, not for hatefulness and spite.
The use of colour is also important characterwise. Whether on purpose or not (one has to believe with Polanski, it’s not down to chance), the two main opposing sides, Cowans vs Longstreets, are comically dressed in what appear to be team colours – blue for Cowans, red for Longstreets. Whether this is to emphasise the side-taking that so commonly happens throughout the film or not could easily be brought into contention. The fact, however, that the Cowans have been dressed in cold colours and the Longstreets warm does have a slight subconscious effect. Even though it appears as though both sides are counted as aggressors at some point throughout the film, personally, I was led to believe early on that it is the Longstreets who care the most. It was their son who was attacked, the discussion is taking part in their apartment, and most importantly, it is Penelope Longstreet’s responsibility for opening up the platform for the argument by suggesting it in the first place. This conditioning at the beginning of the film later on becomes problematic however, as we are soon shown that the Longstreets are indeed just as bad as the Cowans. So, like sides in chess, the colours go on to represent the much deeper tribalism of the two main opposing sides.
Polanski’s use of bizarre, extremely temporary extras also adds to the feature, predominately to underline the comedic aspect of the fact that four adults can be thrown into such a childish scenario. For example, on each of the three attempts of the Cowans to leave the apartment before being drawn into yet another facet of the developing argument, we can distinctly hear the sounds of dogs barking, mirroring the chaos that is ensuing both in and outside the apartment. On the final attempt, we are shown a hint of the bewilderment of the owner of the dog who has clearly had the difficult task of calming them down. The hint of added reality into what could potentially be seen as quite a surreal argument (considering the way in which it accelerates) serves to jolt the audience back into the real world, where, we’d hope, four adults could hold a successful discussion without bickering.
I was glad to be able to see this again – and I doubt it’s the last time. Because, for such a seemingly small film, both in length and setting, there is a treasure-trove of things to consider. How we deal with dispute, how and why we support those closest to us, even when they appear to be wrong, and just how baseless and childish arguments can be. So, as we were drawn into the dispute at the beginning, we are left wondering, towards the end who actually is right? And how can you ever know? And what did become of the hamster?