Polanski’s domestic chattering-classes comedy Carnage was a quadruple country effort which came to screens in 2011.
The plot revolves around two couples and their sons: the Cowans’ (Winslet and Waltz) son hit the Longstreets’ (Foster and Reilly) son across the face with a stick, causing permanent damage to his teeth, and forcing their parents into an uncomfortable discursive situation that leads to the unravelling of their personal domestic disharmonies.
Set all in the one space of the Longstreets’ apartment, Carnage is consistently claustrophobic, challenging social spaces and feeding social taboos – particularly Nancy Cowan’s projectile vomit onto Penelope Longstreet’s art books.
One cannot help but wonder, with Polanski’s fugitive status in mind, whether the film is a chimney for his own personal frustrations and geographic claustrophobia. Within the small space inhabited by these couples, Polanski successfully engineers a critical microcosm of the macro suburban American society existing outside the window (well, constructed there at least). The Cowans never manage to escape the apartment – each time they make for the door, they end up pulled right back through it, as if an invisible barrier is imprisoning them in this vexatious space.
The motif of middle-class consumption enters the picture early on with Penelope’s pear and apple cobbler, which husband Michael insists everyone eats. The lack of a bottom crust becomes a significant metaphor for the lack of a concrete existence for the two couples – both of whom lead discontented lives which they have attempted to cover over, managing only a disjointed crust that is easily broken up by the other couple. The coffee is another bitter taste; the progression into the consumption of whiskey and cigars only serves to aggravate the already volatile situation.
Though Polanski proves his ability to use a simplistic one scene, one place spatial configuration to create an atmospheric and meaningful film, something which many directors would struggle with, there are admittedly some clunky moments. The toing and froing by the front door becomes tiresome, as does the repeated ringing of Alan Cowan’s mobile phone, and the general pacing of the characters – though repetitions are certainly part of the mundane, it at times just feels as though Polanski is running out of storyline.
Carnage, it seems, is distinctly more suited to the theatrical stage, along with the likes of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (1977), because they careen towards pointless melodramatics when recorded rather than staged.
Carnage, dir. Roman Polanski (2011, France/Germany/Poland/Spain)