Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 27, 2011 6:17 pm 
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Verbal blows in Brooklyn

In a way Polanski gets to do his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in Carnage, as Mike Nichols got to do with Edward Albee's original play when he filmed it in 1966 -- though he hasn't got Liz Taylor and Richard Burton and this is not as rich and resonant a play. Here the ironies are a little too easy; they do not go deep enough. Carnage, the title trimmed down from the original The God of Carnage, which the director rewrote for the screen in collaboration with the French-born playwright, Yasmina Reza, is a drama in which two couples start out ever-so-polite and wind up Neanderthal. It's been described as a one-joke play. However, Polanski's direction neatly brings out the nuances of that joke and brightly tunes up the crescendo of blatant hostility between and among couples that comes in the last quarter of the 80-minute interaction. The director has done something like this before, with Death and the Maiden (1994), also from a play, by Ariel Dorfman. Which was the year of Art, Reza's previous London and New York hit (both plays produced from English translations by Christopher Hampton). This time Polanski made use of a more literal translation by Michael Katims.

Is this as good as Maiden? Maybe. As powerful as Virginia Woolf? Hardly. Is making a play as restricted as this to living room, kitchen and bath into a movie necessary? Debatable. (Polanski worked deftly in small spaces with The Tenant and Repulsion, but that was different, and more cinematic.) But one can argue that the activity is comparable to recording classical music instead of simply performing it live. There is a chance to get it absolutely right. There is the loss of the magic of stage and audience, but there is a precision, which fits Polanski's style very well. Given this kind of format, he delivers. And this time his technical staff conspire to make the action appear smooth and seamless in a way it cannot on stage.

This, like Virginia Woolf, is a four-hander, cast for the film with Christof Waltz and Kate Winslet as Kate and Allen Cowen, a corporate lawyer and an investment banker, and John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster as Michael and Penelope Longstreet, a hardware salesman and a writer and bookstore employee. Great casting. Not that they're necessarily better than James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis, the quartet who took the roles on the stage in America. Reilly is goofy, where Gandolfini is menacing and Neanderthal from the start. Waltz is smooth and understated, where Daniels was annoying from the start. Foster is not just prissy but muscular. Winslet is a bit like that too. I found their voices too similar; perhaps Wislet, putting on an American accent, was subconsciously imitating Foster. Waltz stands out again as an actor of extraordinary versatility (thanks, Quentin); Foster is strong and amusing; Winslet is a slow burner; and Reilly neatly creeps up on you. Fine ensemble work here, no doubt about it.

The film begins with a long shot showing the violent incident between the two 11-year-old boys in Brooklyn Bridge Park that is not seen in the play; the interior action was all shot in Paris due to Polanski's legal problems in the US, but set in the vicinity of Brooklyn Heights. The Cowans' son Zachary hits the Longstreet's Ethan with a stick, resulting in the loss of two teeth. The Cowans come to visit the Longstreets to prepare a reconciliation between the two boys and by way of apology. Things begin in a polite, civilized manner, over apple-pear cobbler and coffee. As the evening wears on, whisky is drunk, and hostilities -- evident from the start -- grow stronger. Casualties include Kate Cowan's vomiting, which damages Penelope Longstreet's treasured art books; Kate throws her husband's ever-present cell phone into a vase of water; and she later trashes a beautiful arrangement of tulips that ornaments the coffee table.

I confess that the Broadway Gods of Carnage left me unmoved, quite specifically due to my memory of being shaken to the core by the original Broadway Virginia Woolf. It might have been interesting to see Isabelle Huppert in the Paris version, but I'm not sure. However you slice it, this is much ado over an 11-year-old's smashed incisor and it's not Pinter or Martin McDonagh. It is a pleasure to see Polanski's elegant and very well-directed version, but why has the New York Film Festival not chosen any Polanski film but this since Knife in the Water? What about Chinatown? The Pianist? Is this, like the Oscars, some belated gesture of recognition?

Carnage was shown at the Venice and New York film festivals, screened for this review at Lincoln Center. The gala opening night presentation of the NYFF. It will be a Christmas bauble for Americans, opening in theaters December 16, 2011. It opened rather widely in Italy September 19th (355 screens) and has done rather well.

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