Saturday, December 8, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.19: Roman Polanski's Carnage

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 57 (B-)

When Roman Polanski announced that his first film following his release from prison would be an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s acclaimed play God of Carnage, many wondered how well the play would translate onto film. After all, this kind of chamber-piece is hard to make cinematic. For every Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, there’s a Proof. For every Glengarry Glen Ross, there’s a Doubt. Polanski ran into this problem himself with his stagey adaptation of Death and the Maiden. The good news here is that Carnage is a lively, exciting adaptation of the play. The bad news? The play isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When a grade-school boy hits a classmate with a stick, their parents get together to discuss the altercation. They consist of: middle-class mother Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) an activist writing a book about Darfur; her husband Michael (John C. Reilly) a toilet-parts salesman; rich lawyer Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz), an arrogant lawyer clearly disinterested in the matter; and his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet), involved in wealth management. The couples put on a veneer of good manners, but they clearly aren’t interested in each others’ complaints, and by the end their politeness falls away and reveals the nastiness at the couples’ centers.

Polanski uses deep focus as a way to open up the film, a rather smart move that captures every emotion and facial twitch while allowing the audience to direct their attention wherever they might want to. Polanski overcomes the inherent staginess of the material, meanwhile, by making the fact that the couples never leave the apartment an absurdist joke. His direction is both impressive in its restraint and unshowy, letting the performers take over.

The problem here is that only half of the cast is up to the task. Christoph Waltz gets the film’s best laughs as the hilariously condescending and dismissive Alan, while Winslet does a great job in overcoming her character’s thin conception. She’s a bundle of nerves and fussiness that’s simultaneously irritating and sympathetic. The same can’t be said for Foster, usually adept at conveying barely-hidden fear but far too shrill here as the insufferable Penelope; she seems ideally cast, but her passive-aggressive character is played with too much aggressiveness, and the fever-pitch she brings the character to is ultimately far too screechy and one-note. Reilly fares a bit better at first as the amiable nice guy Michael, but his shift into boorishness is too sudden and unbelievable.

But Carnage would only be semi-successful even had Foster and Reilly not overplayed their parts. The problem isn’t in the adaptation, but in the play. Reza’s play works as a piece of acidic black comedy, but it seems to think that the idea of people hiding their misanthropy under a facade of civility is new and insightful rather than well-worn and played out. Perhaps this material works better on the stage, but here it plays as an amusing but somewhat pretentious trifle. Here’s hoping Polanski picked his next stage-to-screen adaptation, Venus in Furs, with a bit more care.

Polanski: All Films Considered

1.     Chinatown (A)
2.     Rosemary’s Baby (A)
3.     Repulsion (A)
4.     Knife in the Water (A)
5.     Macbeth (A)
6.     The Pianist (A-)
7.     Bitter Moon (A-)
8.     The Fearless Vampire Killers (A-)
9.     The Tenant (B+)
10. The Ghost Writer (B+)
11. Cul-de-sac (B+)
12. Frantic (B)
13. Tess (B)
14. The Ninth Gate (B-)
15. Carnage (B-)
16. Death and the Maiden (C+)
17. Oliver Twist (C)
18. Pirates (D)
19. What? (F)

Best Actor: Jack Nicholson (Chinatown)
Runner-up: Adrien Brody (The Pianist)

Best Actress: Mia Farrow (Rosemary’s Baby)
Runner-up: Catharine Deneuve (Repulsion)

Best Supporting Actor: John Huston (Chinatown)
Runner-up: John Cassavetes (Rosemary’s Baby)

Best Supporting Actress: Ruth Gordon (Rosemary’s Baby)
Runner-up: Olivia Williams (The Ghost Writer)

Best Scene: “Forget it Jake, It’s Chinatown” (Chinatown)
Runner-up: “What have you done to his eyes?!” (Rosemary’s Baby)

An order of business: Thanks for your patience on the Polanski edition of Director Spotlight. I know it was drawn out way longer than it should have been, but things have been pretty crazy around here. Director Spotlight is changing in conception to better suit my hectic schedule: instead of being a monthly feature, each edition will be an ongoing feature without a set timetable. This will better allow me to cover each director with whatever time is needed for his/her filmography- I won’t have to try to cram all of a director’s films into a single month, and the next edition can just start up whenever the last one finishes. In retrospect, this was probably the best way to carry this out anyway, as the director-a-month approach is extraordinarily difficult pace to keep up. With that in mind, I’m moving on to Stanley Kubrick, whose 13-film filmography promises that this will probably go more quickly than the last series. Stay tuned.

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