Roman Polanski’s Carnage, based on the play “Le Dieu du carnage” by Yasmina Reza, explores the conflict between the social expectation of “adult behavior” and the psychological desire to deviate from those expectations. Judging by its title, one can reasonably guess which side of the conflict prevails.
The premise of Carnage is a simple one: Two sets of parents meet to discuss a skirmish that broke out between their children. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) are the mother and father of the victim; Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowen (Christoph Waltz) are the parents of the stick-wielding perpetrator.
At first, both pairs wish nothing more than to come to an agreement about the incident between their children. They are amicable and open-minded. The Longstreets share cobbler and coffee, and the Cowens accept their hospitality. But, soon enough, the façade of cordiality crumbles. The film really hits its stride when niceties give way to vulgarity. Between projectile vomiting, cursing, and drinking, it becomes difficult to remember why the folks were considered adults in the first place. A playground fight with sticks pales in comparison to their antics. This, of course, seems to be the whole point.
The meeting between the couples plays out in real time. With the exception of playground establishing shots during the opening and closing credits, the Longstreet’s upper-middle class apartment accounts for the entirety of the film’s setting. In other words, viewers are trapped in the uncomfortable placating hell right along with the Longstreets and Cowens. Each altercation and awkward pause makes us shake our heads; each bout of nausea and tearfulness makes us squirm in our seats.
Despite Polanski’s checkered past and reproachable personal reputation, his professional work is still worthy of attention. Carnage operates, quite successfully, as a critique of parenthood, adulthood, and marriage. Its conclusions feels inconclusive, its duration chaotic and volatile. As we look upon these childish adults, we cannot help but see ourselves. That reflection is potentially disconcerting, yet also refreshing. The journey through the mess, through the Carnage, is necessary in understanding why we suppress our desire for disorder in the first place.