CARNAGE. Polanski on the demons ruling the human soul

The fact is that this time the director chose a considerably lighter genre than usual, making it much easier to swallow the bitter pills he serves.

Edward Kelley

9 September 2023

After a significant return to form in The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski continued his successful streak with the adaptation of a play by French playwright Yasmina Reza. Having spent nearly a year under house arrest in Gstaad, Switzerland, the director wasted no time. Alongside Reza, who personally appeared in Switzerland, they adapted her play “God of Carnage” for the screen, which had been enjoying theatrical success worldwide for some time. The director’s choice may not come as a surprise because the literary source material for Carnage seems tailor-made for him. A small group of characters, a confined, claustrophobic space of a single apartment, and raging emotions are the environments Roman has navigated throughout his career, starting from his debut film Knife in the Water and continuing with Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Death and the Maiden, and culminating in The Ghost Writer. Although Carnage is considerably lighter in tone compared to the aforementioned works, it explores similar areas that Polanski has delved into throughout his career, particularly during his collaboration with Gerard Brach in the realm of screenwriting.

The main plot of the film, rather trivial in essence, could be described as a pretext: it revolves around a meeting of two couples who, forced by their sons’ fight, attempt to establish a common stance on the interpretation of the event, its course, and its educational consequences, among other things. Initially, a calm, rational, and civilized discussion gradually turns into an avalanche of mutual accusations, criticism, and malice, and soon, we understand that it’s not about the conflict between the sons, not about who beat whom, who is guilty, and who is the victim. In line with his best tradition, Polanski tears away the characters’ veneers of good manners, politeness, and conventions right before our eyes. He compels them to shed the successive layers imposed by social expectations and shaped by centuries of behavioral norms. The escalation mechanism accentuates their worst traits, and from behind the facade of pretense emerges hypocrisy, tentacles, and claws that we would expect more from Lovecraftian creatures than from human beings. The characters stand before us just as they truly are, and in their nakedness, they are no different from uncouth savages or each other. What is exposed before the viewer’s eyes leaves a lump in the throat, as we realize that a mirror has been placed before us, and we are laughing at our rather unsightly image. Only from beyond the frame seems to come Polanski’s slightly diabolical chuckle, which, not for the first time, and I certainly hope not for the last, has peered into the human soul and ruthlessly exposed what he found there.

The fact is that this time the director chose a considerably lighter genre than usual, making it much easier to swallow the bitter pills he serves. However, despite everything, accepting the image of ourselves that emerges from it requires some effort. The actors chosen by the director for this project play a crucial role. Not just anyone could handle the task because the entire film unfolds in one location, the entire plot is based on dialogue, and the camera does not leave the characters for a moment. The neurotic, unfulfilled writer played by Jodie Foster is simply brimming with emotions, and the investment broker, portrayed by Kate Winslet, is continually irritated, waiting for an explosion, yet at the same time, she is a deeply resigned wife to her lawyer husband who is always on the phone, played by Christoph Waltz, whose perpetually vibrating smartphone provides a humorous counterpoint to everything happening around. There is no tension or emotion on the screen that Walter’s incessant interruptions cannot disrupt. All of them deliver excellent, very authentic performances, but perhaps the standout performance on the screen is delivered by John C. Reilly. His sudden and almost unexpected transformation from a docile bear into a fierce cynic – hedonist makes a tremendous impression and becomes a source of genuine amusement.

One critic wrote that the dark instincts that govern us, the omnipresent hypocrisy lurking just behind our default set of masks, and the scrutiny of the grotesque under a magnifying glass of our all-too-human weaknesses are neither something new nor particularly groundbreaking. It’s hard to disagree, especially when the lecturer on the subject is Roman Polanski, who has explored it with us many times before, as mentioned at the beginning. However, every time I see what he wants to show us once again, I become convinced that we need someone who will mercilessly remind us of our imperfections. If there is someone who has something to say about the demons ruling the human soul and the dark sides of our nature, I have an irresistible feeling that it is him.