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Now and Then: How to Ruin a Marriage Without Really Trying, from ‘Carnage’ to ‘Virginia Woolf’

Now and Then: How to Ruin a Marriage Without Really Trying, from 'Carnage' to 'Virginia Woolf'

A quick tip for anyone interested in making a film about class resentment in a recession: as the Soviet filmmakers proved, it usually helps if you’re juxtaposing two distinct points of view. Roman Polanski’s film “Carnage,” about a quartet of outraged — and outrageous — New Yorkers, doesn’t quite follow this advice. It’s made for the one percent.

Slight and acerbic, his take on Yasmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage” pits two artsy, sweater-sporting liberals with money (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) against a couple of hard-nosed executive types with slightly more money (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz). It’s “No Exit” with a 401(k) and a generous helping of guilt, the real differences among the characters so narrow as to be almost nonexistent. If you’re not an upper-class liberal-to-moderate white person from Brooklyn, it’s hard to see just what they’re all so pissed off about.  

The two pairs have met to discuss a playground conflict between their sons, but parental pride is less central than the film’s quicksand of shifting alliances. One minute they’re berating each other, the next they’re in hysterics over a dead phone and a glass of scotch. As a parlor game for four talented actors, “Carnage” works reasonably well, led by the very funny Jodie Foster as do-gooder Penelope Longstreet, who comes unhinged by the suggestion that her politics might have to do with something more than sincere concern. As Waltz’s Alan Cowan says, “everybody has to save themselves somehow.”

Yet what works on stage as a sharp comedy about the shallows of privilege feels bound up and self-indulgent on screen. In rare moments, as the camera pulls back to suggest the proscenium, the body language comes alive to bolster the sound and fury. Witness Foster raging in the foreground, Winslet puking in the back, the two men relaxing into another cocktail: their physical rearrangements mirror their psychic ones, and we can enjoy the volley of insults and recriminations. Mostly, though, Polanski maintains a tepid distance, unable to jar us with a close-up or let the actors roll with the staginess.

It’s not like the Polish filmmaker doesn’t know how to do this. Two of his best films, “Repulsion” (1965) and “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) are sweaty with claustrophobia, insane with queasy interiors. Not so with this teardown of “highfalutin’ claptrap,” as Penelope’s husband, Michael, calls her pontificating. If there’s any carnage in “Carnage,” it’s somewhere beyond the windowpane, just off stage right.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Mike Nichols’ 1966 adaptation of the play by Edward Albee, luxuriates in its liquor-soaked two-plus hours, and pulls off quite a coup. It reveals the constraints of adapting drama for the movies — the problem of how to get the characters moving without forcing the issue — by doing what the cinema does best. It gets right up in your face.

Other than a ham-handed midnight trip to a deserted juke joint, Nichols understands how to use the rambling college-town colonial in which most of the action is set to create a sense of space. As the camera follows cuckolded George, delusional Martha, impotent Nick and wan Honey through their night of whiskey and misery, Nichols depicts the conversation entering a room and leaving it, lingering like an acrid plume of smoke. Coupled with the choice of black and white photography, and the almost-noir chiaroscuro lighting, the direction turns “Virginia Woolf” into a dark night of the soul, a bloody massacre of two marriages that’s far bolder than “Carnage” despite being a bit more circumspect in its language.

Of course, it helps that Elizabeth Taylor gives the best performance of her career. It turns out she was willing to sacrifice her vanity for the right role, and her Martha is a plump, dowdy, cackling harridan, wrinkled and desperate. “Do you want me to go around braying at everyone all night, like you do?” her husband, George (Richard Burton) asks. “I don’t bray!” she brays. Their chemistry is unmatched, a popped seam of anger and resentment, and when they finally spill their secrets to Nick and Honey in the third act, her comic timing and his pent-up aggression have laid the foundation for a punch in the gut.

Nichols has the good sense to rub our faces in it, and if some of the hurried close-ups reveal the limits of taking Albee’s four-hander to the big screen, others will make you wonder why it wasn’t a movie in the first place. Early on, as she humiliates George in front of the guests, the camera frames a face that’s gone beyond grief to malice, to evil; he circles around her, camera also tight, singing the joke song of the title. It’s jostling, as though we’re in the room with them. When your film is about the emotional violence people inflict on each other, it’s fitting to force the audience to have the experience of taking one on the nose.

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