As Martin Scorsese’s Hugo celebrates, cinema can sometimes be about escape, but occasionally it can be about confinement. From Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) to Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), the jury room in 12 Angry Men (1957), to, more recently, Ryan Reynolds’s coffin in Buried (2010), claustrophobia makes of the big screen a small, tight and nerve-racking space. For a director, it can also be a technical challenge like some mad French novelist writing a whole book without the letter E.
Roman Polanski is no stranger to the possibilities of spatial minimalism. A sense of entrapment and isolation runs through many of his films from the apartments of Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to the self-imposed exile of The Ghost (2010). Carnage, based on the French play by Yasmina Reza, is an exercise in making the walls close in. Bookended by two long shots of a park in New York, the rest of the film takes place inside the well-to-do but not overly spacious apartment owned by the Longstreets, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), or the corridor. The Longstreets are meeting the Cowans, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet), to resolve some unpleasantness arising from a fracas between their respective sons, which ended up with the Longstreet boy in hospital. It is all very sensible and civilised, and despite some quibbles about language - ‘Why armed with stick? Why not carrying a stick?’ - the two couples are pleased with themselves for not having gone a more vulgar litigious route. But those quibbles are just the start, and minor irritations, Alan’s constant Blackberrying, Penelope’s smug liberalism, provoke increasingly vicious eruptions, until the film can’t help to both literally and metaphorically spew up what has been difficult to swallow and impossible to digest.
This is cinema as scab-picking and the characters are all cursed with an inability to let anyone else have the last word. They are trapped by nothing more than their inability to let go, dithering in the corridor, convinced that if they could just express themselves accurately all would be well. There is also the weird sense that, despite their own self-satisfaction, they are all deeply unhappy people, who, cathartically, need this punishment, need this argument. Outside of the apartment, they are going to have to get on with the rest of their lives, but here for a moment is an opportunity to take stock, to finally and once and for all, have it out.
The fight is not fair: Waltz’s Alan gets the best lines, the biggest laughs and gets to name the play, and is probably damned the least, whereas Jodie Foster’s Penelope is the kind of gross caricature of a liberal that liberals like to laugh at in order to feel radical and knowing. The casting plays into this: the earnest Foster versus everyone’s favourite Nazi. More an expression rather than a dissection of middle-class anxieties, the film never quite acts out the hyperbole promised by the title. However, the performances are masterful and, although it is no Chinatown (1974), Polanski’s craftsmanship makes this chamber piece one of his more accomplished films.