dir: Roman Polanski
Parents, as any teenager will tell you, are the worst. They’re just horrible people, perpetually using their children as surrogates, stand-ins and battlefields for all their fears, failures and furies. At least as far as movies are concerned
And they’re always convinced that they’re right, even when and especially when they’re wrong.
Four people get trapped in an apartment, unable to leave, held in place like insects in amber by societal niceties, the social contract, the fear of litigation, and eventually, the shittiness of their own marriages. What a recipe for success!
And it's all over an eleven-year-old hitting another eleven-year-old with a stick.
At least in the Australian context, it's hard not to think of The Slap, which uses the slap of the title to show the fault lines and flaws in the relationships of dozens of interlinked people. The realisation of this story, though, couldn't be more different. This flick is based on a play, and it shows. The 'action' doesn't move from the apartment, well, it only moves as far as the outside of the apartment, as two sets of parents try to wrest some kind of meaning from each other, to make up for the lack of it in other areas of their lives.
Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) are the parents of the child who was struck. They present a cheery, amenable front, but Penelope, especially, is so very prickly and brittle. Words, using just the 'right' words in any given context, has the potential to set her off. Words matter to her. When the parents of the other child, the one who perpetrated the horrifying, callous, monstrous, banal act use the 'wrong' word, Penelope pulls them up on it, because she feels like they aren’t taking the seriousness of the situation, the obvious seriousness of the situation, seriously enough.
But then she’ll use the ‘wrong’ word to describe what occurred, or its repercussions, and the other parents will push back, because words matter to them, too.
And who can blame them? Alan (Christoph Waltz) spends more time on his mobile because of work than he does saying sorry, and his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet) spends most of her time projecting the feeling of being deeply mortified by her husband, as opposed to her son’s actions.
These are urbane, affluent, cosmopolitan, well-educated people, you’d think. Surely such paragons of society should be able to work things out amongst themselves? Surely?
Well, by that logic, the United Nations would work and war would be a distant memory.
There are also class issues at play here, although it’s almost imperceptible to people, like me, who have lived most of their life in photogenic but Dickensian poverty. Alan and Nancy are way upper class, 1 Percenters, if you will, while Penelope and Michael are “just” upper middle-class. The gulf between those two strata of the economic hierarchy is vast, vast I tell you. Well, actually, from my perspective, they’re almost indistinguishable, but hey, I’m sure there’s some nuances there to be found.
It sounds like Penelope, who seems to want to take on the misery of the entire world, overselling her son’s injuries, and putting them on a par with the genocides in Africa, wants these other parents to suffer. Why does she want them to suffer?
Because she’s a bad person, I guess. The film posits her political correctness, her bleeding-heart liberalism as a charade, as a crumbling façade that poorly masks a seething morass of resentment and disappointment. But the reason why she’s the ‘worst’ is because she’s the least honest about her real feelings and motivations.
You’d think that Alan, a smug, amoral attorney who works on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, fielding continuous calls as he manages fallout from a released study about side-effects, would be the one the flick would reserve most of its rancour for, but you’d be surprised. He’s no more the villain than any of these other horrible people. He’s boorish and insensitive, but at least he’s honest.
Well, not entirely honest. I mean, he goes through the motions of being apologetic to the other couple because, I guess, he doesn’t want these people suing him for his son’s actions. I’m not even sure if that’s likely, legal or possible, but without that fear, his actions wouldn’t make sense. He gives the film its title, when he tells Penelope what he really thinks about this world, and about the sometimes awful things that happen in it. He believes in the God of Carnage, as in, that horrors are visited upon the strong and the weak, and the weak obviously get annihilated on that god’s altar, but the strong survive and prosper.
At first he dutifully decries his son’s actions, then he calls his son a maniac, then he claims not to know anything about his son, since he’s a hands-off parent that doesn’t give a fuck about his own home as long as it’s not impeding his ability to work.
And then, which is natural, or inevitable, he defends his son, blaming Penelope and Michael’s son for the contretemps, essentially amounting to ‘boys will be boys’. And though they’ve had nothing but contempt for each other up to this moment, he and Michael bond openly over reminiscences of young boyhood, the novel Ivanhoe as an agreed model for masculine behaviour.
What else would guys do at this point rather than start drinking and looking for the cigars?
Needless to say this horrifies the ladies, for very different reasons. One of them gets so horrified that she makes a very loud, liquid expression of her disgust, which is repulsive, meaningful and hilarious.
It’s hard to get across just how well the rhythms of the flick are worked out, because it reaches these histrionic peaks and troughs and then keeps sustaining itself way past the point where you would have thought reasonable people would have killed each other or left the apartment at least. Based as it is on a play, we realise after a while that it’s all going to happen in the apartment, that they’re never going to be able to leave, because they’re trapped (by set-up) by what self-involved people they are.
The acting is supremely good, but most of them are ugly characters. Sure, we’re meant to acknowledge the aspects of ourselves or the people we know in this situation and these people, I wouldn’t argue that this is a universally relatable story. It’s very much reliant on a certain level of preciousness and middle-class anxiety that speaks more to affluent urban dwellers than people who live a bit more simply.
I laughed a lot during the course of this fairly efficient film (it clocks in at barely 75), though this isn’t a comedy, and a lot of that comes from the various tensions the arguments engender, but mostly the laughs come from the way the characters battle with their own need to pretend to be civil, versus what they actually think. It possesses the artificiality of a play, but that’s not necessarily a negative, because it allows for a heightened ‘reality’ that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. So even though the flick is playing out in ‘real’ time, and they manage to cover the entire emotional spectrum, cast onto the rocks both of their marriages, air all their grievances best kept private, and manage to get drunk faster than the lightest lightweight could, it works, and works very well.
My absolute favourite scene, which I think encapsulates both what works about the flick and what is so deeply unpleasant about the characters is a scene between Alan and Michael. Alan has loudly just had another one of his dozens of phone conversations, and Michael comments on some aspect of Alan’s work. Alan haughtily remarks that his work is none of Michael’s business, despite bellowing his work-stuff at full volume.
In this beautifully acidic / naked moment, Michael talks about his own work, knowing full well the contempt Alan has for him, and Alan, with unveiled sarcasm, makes platitude after platitude with this most reptilian of smiles on his face, which Michael returns as he sarcastically trots out further details. Bravo, chaps.
Yes, they’re all vile characters to different degrees, but that doesn’t mean the flick is unpleasant to watch. These actors are wonderful actors playing to type and against type in the scope of the same story at the top of their game, doing good work despite the micro hothouse, ship-in-a-bottle feel of the production, or maybe because of it.
None of these elements make it a great film, but it did make it a somewhat enjoyable one. After all, these characters have no real depth to them, and the themes they express are superficial and trite at the best of times, and they’re clichés of long-standing. Oh yeah, and the dear viewer is advised to make sure they’re watching carefully just after the ‘main’ action seems to have ended, because a scene in the Brooklyn playground, mirroring as it does the scene from the beginning, puts the overall story in context, and also makes a mockery of all that these people put each other (and us) through, which is probably the best ending possible.
7 times I am aware, my Canadian friend, that Roman Polanski is scum, and fled prosecution for rape, and still deserves to endure the full brunt of the law and that seeing and reviewing his films seems to you like tacit acceptance of his actions, though it isn’t, and it’s an argument we’ll be having over beers for decades to come out of 10
“We’re born alone, we die alone. Who wants a scotch?” – the only sane response to impending oblivion - Carnage