The Opening Night film of the 49th New York Film Festival, Roman Polanski’s Carnage, screens four times this Friday night. Sony Classics will release the film on December 16.
Roman Polanski’s terrific screwball adaptation of a Yasmina Reza play begins with four adults trying peaceably to settle a problem between their sons; it ends with four creatures drunk, exhausted and reverted to a primal state of hostility. Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play dippy liberals, the parents of a boy who got two teeth knocked out in a fight at Brooklyn Bridge Park (they’re also residents of an apartment, with a working fireplace, too large and lovely for their income level); Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz are well-dressed professionals, parents of the skirmish’s stick-swinging aggressor. They spend most of the movie with their coats on, motioning to go but never making it farther than the hallway, the souring summit a kind of no-exit nightmare as all four slowly shed the put-on signifiers of maturity and indulge instead puerile impulses, effectively adopting their kids’ conflict and de-evolving into children.
Or, into savages? First, they spar couple against couple; then they realign by sex. Modern marriage, after all, is a icon of comity in all its unnaturalness, so it only makes sense it should collapse as everything else does. But the breakdown is also a symptom of the group’s collective regression—the gender divide reminiscent of prepubescence—clinched when the cork comes out of a bottle of scotch. (At this point, Polanski switches to handheld, loosening this tightly framed chamber comedy that unfolds in real time and has some of the most aggressive mise-en-scene since The Little Foxes.) The veneer of civil behavior slips away—Western values disintegrate to maximum comic effect—revealing an elemental antagonism. The adults come to practice parenthood on schoolyard terms, exposing the caveperson in all of us.