The theatre and the cinema are two very different places. For the actors, the cinema allows them to practice minimalism, knowing that even the smallest gesture takes heightened importance when blown up on a big (or bigger) screen. In the theatre, there is the live feedback from the audience providing an instant response, helping them gauge how a moment or a gesture is being received, and what needs to change in order to best achieve the desired effect. For the audience, the experience is different as well. When watching the screen we are less imaginative, less receptive. What might work as a special effect on a stage would be laughed off a screen – simply because the visible limitations of the stage requires the audience’s imagination to meet those of the play’s creators halfway. Cinema audiences are nowhere near as generous.
Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage has had significant worldwide success as a four-hander, one-set stage play. She adapted it for the screen herself with director Roman Polanski. They chose to keep the same tight setting – that of Michael and Penelope Longstreet’s (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) living room. Well, we get to see the bathroom and kitchen of the cramped Brooklyn apartment, and also the hallway, even a little bit of the elevator. But otherwise the entire 80-minute movie maintains the same integrity of location as the stage play.
This lack of imagination is the first sign that the film of Carnage is fundamentally flawed. The whole point of movies is that the camera is able to go anywhere that the imagination of the director can take us. So by choosing to limit the location, the focus of the movie is therefore meant to be on the words, on the voices of the characters themselves. Unfortunately what actually happens is that every nuance of the set design is analysed to death. Why do these helicopter parents have no signs of their children in their apartment other than a few photos? There are no brightly coloured coats on the hook by the door, no toys in the baskets under the hall table, no childish clutter. Would a lawyer as savvy as Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) really wear such a cheap-looking coat? If his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet) is meant to be an investment broker, then where is her blackberry? And so on and so on.
Alan and Nancy have only come over to Penelope and Michael’s because their sons got into a fight. The parents have decided to have a civilised chat about the best way to handle this. They drink coffee, eat cobbler, and make terribly awkward conversation. Alan is in the middle of a crisis at work, and takes a series of calls from the office with a reckless lack of discretion. And no matter what happens, none of them get away from each other.
What works in a stage setting – especially when one character suddenly vomits over the coffee table – works because the characters cannot leave. There is no drama, no excitement if someone just runs out of sight of the audience to be sick. When the actors are on a visibly limited stage, the audience will instinctively accept that someone would just puke right where they stand. But in a movie, where the camera can move at will, for someone not to run down the hall to the bathroom is almost perverse. After all, no matter where someone goes, the camera can follow.
It’s difficult to understand how the movie gets things so fundamentally wrong on this level. After all, one of Polanski’s earliest movies, Repulsion (1965), is about a woman having a mental breakdown in a claustrophobic apartment. Carnage is almost a mash-up of that film and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s famous play-then-film of two couples at war at a dinner party. But Carnage is most reminiscent of Hidden (2005), Michael Haneke’s devastating takedown of a bourgeois French family and how their child rips their do-gooder mentality to shreds.
The magnificent cast do their best within the constraints of the script, but none of them are able to transcend the flaws of the set-up. Carnage is, however, worth seeing for Jodie Foster’s first major performance in years. As a woman utterly convinced of her own superiority and righteousness, Foster gives us a very welcome reminder of her talent and her fearlessness. While the four characters rip themselves apart, it becomes ever more obvious what drew Polanski to this material. The question you leave the film wondering is: what drew Foster?