Can you separate the artist from his art? That’s likely the first question moviegoers need to answer before deciding whether or not to see “Carnage,” Roman Polanski’s new film. In 1977, Polanski was accused of drugging and raping a thirteen-year-old girl, but fled the country before his sentencing was complete. He has since settled a civil suit with the victim, but can’t return to the US because he’s still wanted for the criminal charges.
Plenty of artists, filmmakers included, do all sorts of unpleasant things. It’s ultimately a personal decision whether one can see a film in spite of its makers’ bad behavior. Polanski’s may be too much for some to bear the thought of their money going into his pocket, but for others the quality of the film may be more important.
“Carnage” is being billed as “a comedy of no manners,” and that’s it in a nutshell. When one boy hits another in the face with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth, the boys’ parents meet to discuss the situation. The victim’s parents, community-building Penelope (Jodie Foster) and blue-collar Michael (John C. Reilly), invite the stick-weilder’s parents, brittle Nancy (Kate Winslet) and boorish Alan (Christoph Waltz) over for what should be an awkward but straightforward conversation. Before long, it devolves into a four-way screaming match.
All four adults like to think of themselves as reasonable people, but they are perfectly matched to drive each other up the wall. Penelope is self-righteously liberal and fair-minded, while Michael is practical and just wants to smoothe everything over. Alan can’t stop answering his cell phone, which adds to the unpleasant situation and provokes Nancy’s nervous stomach until she’s violently ill. Alan and Nancy keep trying to leave and being drawn back in, helpless against the magnetism of a good all-out fight.
“Carnage” is adapted and translated from a French play by Yasmina Reza, and definitely has the feel of one — the dialog is occasionally a little stilted, but it has the simplicity of a theater production and the claustrophobia provided by trapping four adults who all dislike each other in a single room for two acts.
The acting is spot-on, although Waltz steals the show with Alan’s casual horribleness. Winslet is superb as the gorgeous but barely-held-together Nancy, and she plays the woman’s breakdown from perfect to pathetic with style. Penelope likes to think of herself as the most evolved person in the room, but Foster shows us the ugly underbelly of her character in little ways, like tipping a rock up just enough to let you see the legs of the creepy-crawly things underneath. Reilly, of course, is fantastic — Michael is a simple kind of guy, but Reilly makes him feel as well-rounded as can be in a delightfully understated performance. He can do more with simple broad strokes than some actors can with complexity and muscle twitches.
So, if you are willing to see Polanski’s movies and love biting comedies, don’t miss “Carnage.” Otherwise, head elsewhere this weekend.