POLANSKI and the politics of the playground
Take a play set in Paris, relocate it to Brooklyn, film it all in one location with a seriously A-list cast – oh and do it in real-time too. Director Roman Polanski sets himself a challenge with Carnage
Words: Lauren Williams
When the comedic play that came to be known as The God of Carnage opened in Zurich in 2006, it was hailed a triumph, moving to London and on to Broadway, picking up an Olivier and three Tony Awards. Written by French playwright Yasmina Reza, the story centres on the verbal tribulations of four parents that are locked in a living-room showdown in the aftermath of a playground squabble in which one of the parents’ boys has beaten up the others. Brimming with sharp dialogue, the story plays out in real-time and bids to highlight the contradictions and prejudices that bubble beneath the outwardly pleasant demeanours of four well-heeled, middle-class parents.
The play struck an immediate chord with acclaimed filmmaker Roman Polanski, who was convinced from the moment he saw it that it would translate beautifully to the screen. He recruited Reza to co-author a screenplay and launched into his latest directorial offering. “The tone of the play was hilarious and the pace fast moving,” he remembers. “What particularly attracted me was the real-time action. I’d never made a film without the slightest ellipse and I don’t remember ever having seen one either.” Originally set in Paris, the action was relocated to New York when the play transferred to Broadway in 2009. Polanski, meanwhile, chose to set his adaptation in Brooklyn, and recruited a heavyweight cast: Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz playing one couple, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly the other. “The spirit of the play seemed to me more American than French and Brooklyn would be a likely place for these kinds of families to live,” the director says.
“Really we’re all very primitive”
“By far the greatest challenge was making the film in real time,” he adds. “Ever since I was a child I enjoyed films that evolved in a single location far more than action films. I like the sensation of the proximity to the characters, similar to the feeling to be found in Dutch paintings, like Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, where the artist gives the spectator the sensation of being in the room.”
Polanski has plenty of experience making films set in enclosed spaces – consider his ‘Apartment Trilogy’ of Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. “But I had never done anything as rigorously self-contained as on this occasion,” he concedes, “and to film in that way you must have actors who can live with each other. The characters are of such different traits and types and it was a stroke of luck that these four actors could function so well together, in complete harmony. It doesn’t happen on every production.”
With three Oscar-winners and a nominee among its four cast-members, Carnage features a clutch of heavyweight performances, each actor delighting in their character’s complexities and paradoxical behaviour. The film pits power-couple Nancy and Alan Cowan (Winslet and Waltz) against the liberal writer and campaigner Penelope Longstreet and her wholesaler husband, Michael (Foster and Reilly).
“It’s a perfect set-up for comedy,” notes Reilly, “because whenever you put people in a difficult situation and make them behave in a polite way, that’s an age-old recipe for comedy.”
“In the school playground there’s always an air of ‘I have to be nice to you even though I hate your guts’”
It is indeed, the story providing what Winslet describes as “a window on to so many of our worlds.” The actress says the film also demonstrates the complexities of parenting. “It’s about how children should be raised,” she says, “and it’s about the endlessly complex dynamic that is marriage. And to have turned it into a comedy in the way that Yasmina did is even more enriching and enlightening for everybody. To be able to laugh at ourselves, to be able to make fun of the human condition, that is the thing that no matter what language you speak or what your personal circumstances are, we’ve all experienced in some way.”
She believes that the tale “is very real. For example, in the school playground, when you’re negotiating with other parents there’s always an air of ‘I have to be nice to you even though I hate your guts’,” she laughs. “There’s always that glossy air of making nice, a fakery that goes on which is part of how you operate as a parent when you’re trying to protect those you love.”
Foster agrees. “Although Carnage is satirical and outlandish in some respects,” she says, “the relationship between the characters has a genuine grounding in real psychology. It’s the tapestry of people’s lives that I find most fascinating – how they interact with each other, and how they drive each other crazy, how they stab each other over and over again. Really, we’re all very primitive.” Hence the title of both the play and the film.
“We’re all monstrous in some ways,” Foster says, “and if we took responsibility for that, we’d probably all be better off.”
Carnage is released in UK cinemas on 3 February 2012.