At the opening of the New York Film Festival on Friday night, New York’s cultural elite–whether intellectual liberal cinerati or well-heeled conservative donors–received a poisonous dose of condemnation in Roman Polanski’s lacerating new film “Carnage.”
Set in the upper-class milieu of Brooklyn Heights (where I, incidentally, have lived for many years), the film pits two sets of parents, the more leftist Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) vs. the more right Cowans (Kate Winsley and Christoph Waltz) against each other in a battle of blame, persecution, guilt-complexes, and humiliation.
While the movie is ultimately a disappointment — straining believability at times like a horror film (why don’t they just get out of that Brooklyn house of horrors) and broadly played (like some sort of Slapstick of Cruelty) — “Carnage” may be the most vivid depiction of our current corrosive political climate since Glenn Beck’s Fox TV show.
Working off Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage,” which recounts the fallout after the couples meet to discuss a playground fight between their sons, Polanski unsparingly eviscerates both sides with equal relish: Jodie Foster’s art-history-expert, Darfur-obsessed, apple-pear-cobbler-cooking self-righteous moralist turns out to be a raging and unstable hypocrite, a judgmental monster quick to demean and damn others, while Christophe Waltz’s cold, calculating lawyer is an insensitive, repugnant, self-obsessed corporate lawyer, out of touch with his family and constantly in touch with his office via cellphone. At one point, he spits at Foster, “I saw your friend, Jane Fonda….” And after a too few many glasses of Scotch, Winslet’s character angrily spouts a line that has but a few political connotations: “I wipe my ass with your human rights!”
An article about the play in The Independent suggests its bleak view of humanity and lack of reconciliation might evoke the futility of the war in Iraq and the long-standing political stalemate in the Middle East. (Reza is French, with an Iranian Jewish father, while Polanski, of course, suffered through the Holocaust, so take your pick where the cynicism comes from.)
But American viewers will surely see in “Carnage” a vision of America’s dysfunctional and divisive state of intractability–where petty fights muddy the bigger picture, where personal attacks are preferred over reasoned rhetoric, no one wants to take responsibility and where everyone wants to lay blame on everyone else.