Who’s Afraid of Roman Polanski?

Scene from "Carnage". Sony Pictures Classics, 2011

I just got back from watching Roman Polanski’s new film, “Carnage”. The movie is based on a play by Yasmina Reza – who wrote a few more plays, apparently, which I should most definitely look into. In the spirit of the movie I am writing from my guts (the credits rolled not half an hour ago), and my gut feeling is that it was absolutely brilliant.

First I must admit that the reason I went to see the movie – which I only heard about a few hours ago when I was looking to see which movies were playing today – was that the description on IMDb reminded me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Perhaps one of the reasons I feel so strongly about “Carnage” is that it is indeed very reminiscent of Albee’s play. The suffocating claustrophobia is a strong element in both pieces, as is the hostile and tense encounter of two couples. So is the slow uncovering of the characters’ true selves, letting go of their manners in order to air out what they really feel. Like Virginia‘s Martha, “Carnage” has one character who’s job it is to speak the cold and cynical truth: Alan. (I think it’s interesting that here it’s a man’s role). Since I don’t like it when reviews go on explaining the plot I’ll be brief: “Carnage” takes place in an apartment in New York, in which two married couples – Penelope &

Scene from Mike Nichols' version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?". Warner Bros., 1966

Michael, Nancy & Alan – meet to discuss a fight their boys had. It starts out very polite and mannered and slowly, with the aid of alcohol and pressure, the four characters become more and more free to fight about deeper issues, about morality, about who’s fault it was that one boy broke the other’s teeth and about their dysfunctional marriages.

What stands in the center of the movie – dare I say it? yes: the theme – is violence. First that of the boys; then the couples against each other; later the couples against themselves as well. Violence takes a concrete form in the discussion of the boys’ feud and of Penelope’s favorite topic, the harsh suffering of the people of Africa. More interestingly, it takes a more general, abstract form in the aggressiveness that pops up everywhere in the movie. There’s an interesting discussion about how innate violence and aggression is in our so-called civilized western society, and how futile it is to deny it. Penelope presents herself as a very moral person, with strong beliefs in art, peace, and society’s ability to overcome its violent instincts. But the artists she chooses to display on her coffee table are Bacon and Kokoschka. I don’t know much about Kokoschka but Francis Bacon’s imagery is certainly very raw and scary, full of anxiety. (I half expected to see a Lucian Freud book in her pile. It seems fitting.) She reacts very passionately when Nancy vomits all over her beloved Kokoschka, in a manner that is very ‘natural’, perhaps, but certainly challenges her claims about herself. Eventually Alan’s cynical approach gets her to admit that her obsession with African suffering is meant to make her feel better about her morality and feel more in control. Civility is nothing more than a defense mechanism.

Alan is an interesting character too. He’s the very prototype of the 21st century man: a tough lawyer with a suit and a cell phone attached to the palm of his hand. Alan’s having a pretty big work crisis, when it turns out that his biggest client, a pharmaceutical company, has been reported to knowingly sell a drug with very dangerous sides effects. Alan’s phone won’t stop ringing. At first only once in while, causing the rest of the group to sit and wait for him each time; as the movie progresses, the ringing becomes more and more frequent and the other characters more and more frustrated with it. His type of aggression gets, in this very efficient manner, a double expression. He’s both cold about his crisis – caring only about the company’s image and never concerning himself with the dangerous drug – and impossible to his wife. He refuses to “give a damn” about the situation with his son, and is constantly making obvious how much he doesn’t want to be in this meeting with Penelope and Michael. I found this point (the constant work phone-calls) easy to relate to, as I imagine many viewers will. It is a common modern illness to be so workaholic as to neglect everything and everyone else, and so very easy to relate to Nancy’s frustration: always having to wait for Alan, always being put aside because work is more important. This is also a well articulated comment on modern aggression. Penelope and Michael, representing the old world (writer, small shop owner) have no similar work-phone issues. They have other issues, of course; that is, violence does not go away nor did it suddenly appear: it’s just there all along human history, changing its face according to the circumstances.

I guess in the end Alan’s side of the argument wins. Violence is inherent, we are all dreadfully animalistic, and all it takes

Alan the typical workaholic. "Carnage", Sony Pictures Classics, 2011

to get it out of us is a few glasses of single-malt whiskey. He was also right about how many of our troubles are caused by over-thinking: the last image in the movie shows the two boys being very friendly despite their parent’s lack of success in solving the dispute.

Re-reading and editing my post I see that I’ve referred to it as a review. I take that back: this is only a response, a gut (plus editing) reaction to the movie. In the interest of making this post worth your time, here’s a review too: IT’S A REALLY GOOD MOVIE! THE ACTING IS GREAT! THE POPCORN WAS DELICIOUS!


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