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Preview: "Carnage" and the Politics of Roman Polanski (updated)

by Anthony Kaufman
August 22, 2011 1:00 AM
2 Comments
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I'm a fan of Polanski, the auteur, and unashamed to say it.

With the announcement that Polanski's latest "Carnage" would open the New York Film Festival (and the release of the new trailer, see below), my expectations around the movie suddenly jumped from the lower levels of "Bitter Moon" to the heightened anticipation of, say, a "Repulsion."

"Knife in the Water" and "Chinatown" remain among my favorite films of all time, and his last movie "The Ghost Writer"--while ultimately slight, but a hell of a lot of fun, with its mix of political intrigue, paranoia and dark comedy--made my top ten list last year, so let's just say "Carnage" is going to be big for me.

Now why am I writing about the film on my politics and film blog? Two reasons:

1. Polanski is, de facto, a political figure. There will be no doubt legions of conservatives who will decry the director and his latest film, no matter its content, because of the filmmaker's troubled transgressions more than 30 years ago.

2. But more interestingly, because Polanski is a political director. Forget the blatant political milieu of "The Ghost Writer" for a moment, and consider the corruption, confusion, alienation, claustrophobia, cynicism, and sense of overwhelming powerlessness of the individual, that pervades all of his films, whether "Repulsion," "Rosemary's Baby, "The Tenant," "Chinatown," or "Frantic." If 'The Pianist" saw its protagonist triumphant, it was hardly through any heroic efforts on his part. A survivor of the Krakow Ghetto during WWII (his mother died at Auschwitz), Polanski endured a traumatic childhood, which is never far from the more banal or absurd horrors that exist in his films.

On the surface, "Carnage," which stars Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, looks a little like "Death and the Maiden," one of Polanski's more obviously political works. Also based on a play, by Argentine Ariel Dorfman, the film follows three characters ensnared in a nasty game of revenge and deception when a woman is convinced that a stranger her husband has brought home is a former fascist who once tortured and raped her. A gnarly emotional roller-coaster follows, with the characters pushed to their limits.

"Carnage" seems more innocuous, at first. Based on the play "God of Carnage" by Yasmina Reza, the film recounts the fallout after two couples meet to discuss a playground fight between their sons. According to the New York Times review of the play, however, it's only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose, and they all fall prey to “the god of carnage,” whom one of the characters, a sharky executive type (played by Waltz in the film), admits proudly to believing in.

According to the Times, Reza links the spouses’ degeneration to a larger picture of a "feral dog-eat-dog world." The cellphone calls that Alan keeps taking, for instance, have to do with damage control for a Big Pharma wonder drug that's gone bad. In the trailer, Winslet's character also angrily spouts a line that has but a few political connotations: "I wipe my ass with your human rights!"

One theater critic also noted the crass lack of civility on display seemed perfectly timed with America's current national dysfunctional discourse.

In an interview with The Independent, the writer suggests the play's bleak view of humanity and lack of reconciliation, might evoke the futility of the war in Iraq and the stalemate in the Middle East. If you want to read further into the story, Reza is French, with an Iranian Jewish father.

Whatever the explicit subtext, "Carnage" should turn out to be another one of Polanski's more scathing and yes--harrowingly true--examinations of humanity, at its most base, vulnerable and selfish. I can't wait to see it.

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2 Comments

  • Elle Harrow | August 23, 2011 3:49 AMReply

    I am also excited about this film and a great fan of Polanski. However, the trailer brings to mind "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"?
    Avid reader of Reel Politik

  • G Farrington | August 3, 2011 10:31 AMReply

    Just don't think it's the conservatives...I'm a tried and true liberal, whom as a person and as a parent...cannot forgive Polanski's past nor pretend like it never happened as some out here in hollywood seem to do.

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