Big Screen Berkeley: Carnage

"Carnage", Roman Polanski's latest oeuvre, may be one of the best movies of 2011

Roman Polanski is not the nicest man in the world. Having infamously raped an underage girl in 1977, he fled the United States to avoid the consequences. Though his victim has since ‘forgiven’ him for his crime, the case continues to fester in the courts, and Polanski has not returned to the U.S. since.

It’s somewhat surprising, then, to report that the great director’s new film, Carnage (opening this Friday, January 13th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas) is set entirely in the United States. Perhaps less surprising is the fact that — other than some very minor second unit work — it was shot entirely in France.

Based on an award-winning one-act play by Yasmina Reza (who co-wrote this screen adaptation with Polanski), Carnage tells a very simple story: as we see during the film’s short (and silent) prologue, two young Brooklyn boys have been involved in an altercation. Their parents meet to settle the matter and decide who will pay the medical bills. The end.

Of course, things aren’t quite as simple as my brief précis suggests. We quickly learn that, despite their quarrel, the boys probably still have more in common than do their parents: middle-class, vaguely new age-y Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), whose son has lost some teeth, and affluent professionals Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Walz and Kate Winslet), whose son did the amateur dental work. Chalk, meet cheese.

Initially, everyone’s on their best behavior, but it’s clear that hurt feelings and wounded egos are not far beneath the surface. Penelope displays fiery flashes of temper while Alan seems both unconcerned and unsurprised by his son’s bullying; it’s left to the avuncular Michael to sooth jangled nerves with his sunny disposition and fresh-baked fruit cobbler. As the story continues, however, the masks begin to slip, and soon all four parents are revealing their less pleasant sides — ugly facets of the human condition with which Polanski is surely familiar.

Reza’s visceral and biting screenplay offers each cast member a chance to show off their chops, and they take full advantage of the opportunity. Reilly, best known for comedic roles, appropriately gets Carnage’s biggest laugh lines, but his portrayal of hardware store owner Michael also allows him to branch out into more dramatic directions. Foster’s character betrays the deepest contradictions, vainly attempting to be understanding and sensitive while holding others to unreasonable standards. Walz (an actor whose Oscar winning turn in Inglourious Basterds I missed due to my deep-seated loathing of Quentin Tarantino) is brutally and bluntly acerbic as amoral corporate lawyer Alan; Winslet’s well-coiffed and fashionable Nancy is a wee bit more diplomatic than her husband — until she starts drinking.

Though far from being cinematic, Carnage is certainly among the best films of 2011. I’ll be shocked if an Academy Award nomination isn’t forthcoming for Polanski and Reza’s screenplay, and all four actors also deserve recognition. Even if nominated, however, this much is certain: the carnage of Roman Polanski’s personal life will prevent him from being anywhere near Hollywood on Oscar night.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Mr. Seal, for writing a film review of a movie that I might actually go to. In fact, your review has greatly increased the likelihood that I will see it.  I believe media entities present film reviews to draw their readers interest in films and to draw the interest of movie theaters in placing ads.  I have always thought your focus on obscure films has been an odd choice for a start up news outlet like Berkeleyside. I have noticed that there are rarely any comments to your reviews, which suggests a fairly low interest.

    Thanks.  I don’t think I would have considered going to this film if I had not read your review.  Now, I believe I will.

  • Tizzilish: Thanks for your comment. 

    One of the many reasons Berkeleyside and many of our readers appreciate John Seal’s reviews is precisely because he doesn’t generally write about the big box-office movies that are being reviewed in every other newspaper and media outlet. 

    We consider it a huge bonus to be able to learn about alternatives that are screening right here in Berkeley. Having said that, his choices are not always obscure. His “best of 2011” list last month included the Muppets movie for heaven’s sake (!), Moneyball and Contagion!

  • laura

    Excellent film, really enjoyed it.

  • Peaku

    Hey whatever happen to Michael Covino? Dose he still write for the East Bay Express? Been years since I’ve seen a refiew by him.

  • ColleenNeff

    I saw the play on Broadway and loved it. I plan to see the movie too but it will be hard to replace James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. That team rocked the place.

  • SuzyP

    I saw it too and completely agree.  Didn’t all four of the Broadway leads win Tony awards?  
    By the way, Mr. Seal, Yasmine Reza’s name has only one “z'”

  • Berkeley Woman

    Men make no apologies for wanting to see good-looking woman on the screen. It’s time those who make movies realize that a lot of women, especially younger ones, have the same feelings about male stars! I find people like John C. Reilly and Seth Rogan so physically or emotionally unattractive that I won’t go to a movie if they are starring, especially as the boyfriends or husbands of pretty women. Ugh. Many of my friends feel the same. Some people are going to hate this but it’s true.

  • SuzyP: Thanks for alerting us to the misspelt name. We have made the correction.

  • Graham

    Thanks for the well-thought-out review, but being entertained for two hours is not worth supporting an unrepentant child rapist.

    It’s amazing and disheartening that Polanski continues to enjoy the support of his peers and moviegoers, despite the fact that he forcibly raped a 13-year-old girl when he was 43 years old and has since used his wealth and political power to deny responsibility and evade justice.

    Your time, attention, and money have influence.  Please use them responsibly.

  • Bob

    Wrong.  It was consensual sex.  Statutory rape to be sure, but not forcible.  What’s more he has never denied it, he has instead publicly stated on more than one occasion that he doesn’t feel he did anything wrong.  Further, he went through the justice system, was sentenced to and went through some kind of rehab program.  Then some politically ambitious DA convinced a judge to jerk him around some more.  He got fed up with it and fled to Europe.  Couple of years ago the Swiss detained him on an extradition order from LA.  That went through the court system and extradition was ultimately denied.

    I don’t necessarily condone his behavior but I would note that the putative “victim” would like to have it dropped (it happened 30+ years ago so she’s not 13 anymore) and not every 13 year old girl is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, particularly not in Hollywood and particularly not with a mother who sets her up on a “photo shoot” date with a guy like Polanski. 

    Back in the 30s there were common anti-Semitic broadsheets warning of Jewish “beasts” who lured young Christian girls to Hollywood in order to ravish them.  Polanski is Jewish, this whole hysterical ranting smacks very much of antisemitism.  Sex happens.  I’ll assure you that somewhere in California right now, maybe even in Berkeley, a 13 year old girl is engaging in consensual sex with an older man.  And no one will be arrested.

  • Graham

    Wow, Bob.

    You claim that when Polanski (aged 43 at the time) gave a minor in his employ (aged 13 at the time) champagne and a quaalude shortly before penetrating her vaginally and anally despite her clearly and repeatedly saying “no”, this act of rape was “not forcible.”

    Besides, since “not every 13 year old girl is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”, she must have been asking for it.  (And if the 13-year-old is asking for it, then that makes it OK for the 43-year-old to rape her, right?)

    As if you hadn’t already thoroughly discredited yourself in the first two paragraphs, you further go on to claim that people who object to child rapists being put on pedestals if they are “artists” are not actually concerned about child rape, but are in fact masking anti-semitism.

    But, hey, at least you “don’t necessarily condone [Polanski’s] behavior”.

    Sarcasm aside:

    At the age of 43, Roman Polanski gave a 13-year-old girl alcohol and drugs before forcibly raping her, despite her repeatedly saying “no.”

    You can read a relevant excerpt of the court transcript here:

    Polanski’s religion is irrelevant.  He raped a child.

    Polanski’s skill as a moviemaker is irrelevant.  He raped a child.

    Even if the child had not been drugged, had not been given alcohol, had not been fearful for her future in the industry, and had not said “no” — if instead she had begged for it — a 13-year-old cannot legally give consent to sex with a 43-year-old.  There’s no gray area there.  Children of that age are physiologically incapable of making informed decisions of that nature.  This is only part of why it was unambiguously illegal (and, more importantly, wrong) for Polanski to have raped that child.

    When that child grew to be an adult and chose not to let an act of violence define her life, her prudent decision as an adult did not excuse or erase Polanski’s crime against her as a child.  There are other children – and, as you point out, Bob, there are other rapists – and we as a society are ethically and legally obliged to protect them.

    When we let Roman Polanski get away with raping a child, having never faced up to the consequences of his actions, we place the children of today and tomorrow at greater risk.

    That’s why I’ll never spend time or money in support of a Polanski film.