It’s been an odd decade for Roman Polanksi. He’s only had two films out since he was the toast of the Academy Awards and Cannes back in 2002 with “The Pianist”: one the long-forgotten adaptation of “Oliver Twist,” the other the opinion-splitting “The Ghost Writer.” A director roundly criticized as much as he is feted, he remains, much like the title of Marina Zenovich ‘s 2008 documentary exploring his decision to flee the United States in the late 70s, a director simultaneously ‘wanted’ in America for his criminal behavior more than three decades ago, and ‘desired’ across the Atlantic as an artist.
Despite the moral and legal farragoes that threatened to engulf his career last year when he was arrested in Zurich and threatened with extradition, his name alone is enough to attract a litany of celebrated actors (in this case Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz) and his latest, “Carnage,” has been gently building a head of steam around it as a result. A new pic has cropped up over at the Sony Pictures Classics site, and while it’s essentially like the still we were treated to back in late March, it remains a project to be quietly excited about, in spite of the potentially odd mash-up of acting personalities in the ensemble.
The film’s source is the Tony-winning play “God of Carnage” by French writer Yasmina Reza (who also penned the stage hit “Art”), that was translated into English by a celebrated scribe in his own right, Christopher Hampton, and debuted in London’s West End in 2008 before transferring to Broadway a year later, changing Reza’s original Parisian locale to New York with it. Somewhat ironically, Polanski’s film will retain Brooklyn as its setting but it was shot in Paris for reasons obvious to anyone even remotely familiar with his current legal situation. Now shortened simply to “Carnage,” the plot – set in one room and unfolding in one ninety-minute hit — is essentially an exploration of middle-class bourgeois hypocrisy, centering on two professional couples who gather in an apartment to discuss a schoolyard incident (one of the couple’s children whacks another round the head), only to have the whole situation descend into chaos. Whilst we don’t get any glimpse of the lunacy yet to unfold, all the actors — all, to some extent, playing vulgar stereotypes of the smug chattering classes — certainly look the part.
In both of its stage incarnations, the play picked up a string of glittering actors to play the roles, treating audiences to the likes of Lucy Liu, Jeff Daniels, Dylan Baker, Ralph Fiennes, Ken Stott, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden. The closest models would be Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party,” in which the evening starts off with civil discussion about morality and descends into outright madness as all four begin engaging in the tawdry, infantile behaviour they were criticizing only moments ago. Think of it as a broadly humorous take on several of the themes that regularly crop up in the work of Michael Haneke – most obviously “Funny Games” and “Caché” – wherein the moral complacency of a wealthy liberal couple is challenged by external forces to horrific effect. It’s a redux of themes that also crop up explicitly in British shocker “Eden Lake,” Lars von Trier‘s “Antichrist” and arguably even the little Ozploitation horror shocker “Long Weekend,” although instead of being threatened by malevolent external forces, in this case it’ll be Winslet’s prim and proper mother slugging it out with Jodie Foster, over alcoholism and flower arranging. And though this latest pic doesn’t give us much to go on, anyone who’s been treated to a live performance of the play, will no doubt see how this could be an excellent opportunity for Polanski, especially if the director can successfully get over the project’s inherent staginess. “Carnage” will hit theaters on November 18th and is expected to debut on the festival circuit later in the year.