An Introduction To Roman Polanski’s Carnage
Here’s the text of a introduction to Roman Polanski’s Carnage, which I gave last night at Derby QUAD. Polanski becomes the first director whose films I’ve introduced twice, as I ‘did’ Chinatown in 2010.
Introduction to Carnage
Carnage is 79 minutes long, features only four primary actors, and is set in a single New York apartment. You won’t be surprised, therefore, to learn that it is based on a stage play. As a general rule, it’s very tricky to adapt theatrical works into movies without ‘opening up’ the action – which risks alienating audiences who know the material – or keeping the claustrophobia – which will make many feel, “well, we may as well have gone to the theatre.”
Carnage has no such problems, because it is directed by Roman Polanski, arguably cinema’s greatest director of confined spaces. Indeed, when Carnage was shown at the New York Film Festival last year, the festival’s boss Richard Pena called Polanski “a poet of small spaces … in just a couple of rooms he can conjure up an entire world, an entire society.”
No filmmaker has devoted so much of his career to exploring the unease and claustrophobia of being stuck indoors. His debut, Knife In The Water, saw a ménage a trois turn nasty aboard a yacht. In Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve goes mad while housesitting in a London flat. In Rosemary’s Baby, Mia Farrow finds that her neighbours in a New York apartment are a Satanic coven trying to get the Devil to impregnate her. In The Tenant, Polanski himself plays a man who rents a flat that drove his predecessor to suicide.
It’s not so surprising when you know about Roman Polanski’s life. A Polish Jew, his mother was murdered at Auschwitz and he survived only by paying locals to hide him. He then grew up in Communist Poland, his flair for artistic dissent finding expression through metaphor; imprisonment aboard a boat, or in an apartment, inevitably stands for being trapped in a country, or by life itself. When he moved to Los Angeles, you’d think he’d escape from such concerns – no such luck. Charles Manson’s gang targeted his Hollywood home. Polanski wasn’t there at the time, but his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was one of the victims. Polanski’s violent grief fed into a bloody version of Macbeth and the dark conspiracy of his greatest film, Chinatown.
And then, in the mid-1970s, came the event that has literally kept Polanski in fear of being imprisoned ever since. Convicted of underage sex with a teenage girl, Polanski fled the U.S. and has been dodging extradition ever since. He has to be careful where he travels. Indeed, in 2009, he was arrested in Switzerland and faced a serious risk of being sent back to America. He completed editing on his last film, The Ghost, while under house arrest – a weird case of life imitating art.
So it’s no wonder that Polanski, keen to make mainstream, English-language films but barred from actually filming in America, continues to favour small-scale projects. Bitter Moon returned to the waters with a psychodrama set on an ocean liner. Death And The Maiden, another adaptation of a play, is a three-hander set in a remote house. And Carnage, although set in New York, was filmed in Paris. Even when he chooses large-scale projects, his characters remain trapped – by the Holocaust in The Pianist, or by poverty in Oliver Twist.
But Polanski thrives on the challenges and limitations, because the intense focus of these stories frames his pessimistic study of human behaviour. He chooses big subjects, or big authors – he’s adapted Shakespeare, Dickens and Hardy – to attract big actors. Even after his crime and his exile from Hollywood, he’s worked with Harrison Ford, Hugh Grant, Ben Kingsley, Adrien Brody, Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan. And actresses love him despite (or because of) his habit of making female characters paranoid, angry or plan bonkers – Catherine Deneueve, Mia Farrow, Nastassja Kinski and Sigourney Weaver have done some of their best work for Polanski.
Carnage is pure Polanski, not least for the talent of its cast. Two children have been involved in a fight. Their respective parents, one set played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, the other by Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, meet at the latter’s house to discuss what happened. But as the Scotch flows freely, so does the conversation… and inevitably social barriers collapse. But still: the guests don’t leave. It’s a story with the feel of Bunuel’s classic surrealist film The Exterminating Angel, about a dinner party where the guests cannot leave. Except here, the effect isn’t surreal but psychological – Polanski understands that, on some level, we want to feel trapped.
If that sounds bleak, the other thing to say about Carnage is that it’s a comedy. Polanski remains one of the toughest of directors, his grim life experience translating into nightmarish cinema, but Carnage sees him exploring his favourite subject with tongue firmly in cheek. Having explored the cruellest corners of humanity, Polanski cannot see a middle-class dispute as anything other than a bitterly funny storm in a teacup. After all, as Karl Marx once said, “history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.” Welcome to Carnage: Roman Polanski’s farce.
Carnage is showing nationwide, and is at Derby QUAD until Thursday 16th February.