Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Director: Roman Polanski
'We're not going to get into these children's quarrels,' says Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet), as the investment broker and her lawyer husband, Alan (Christoph Waltz), meet businessman Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) and his writer wife, Penelope (Jodie Foster, above, centre, with Winslet and Waltz), to try to reconcile a fight between their sons.
While Nancy is referring to the pointlessness of examining the possibly juvenile nature of the scuffle, her remark serves as a foreboding of what follows in Roman Polanski's latest offering - a story about how four well-off and seemingly sophisticated adults regress into puerile point-scoring and physical confrontation that puts their scions' antics to shame.
Based on Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage - the French playwright co-wrote the adaptation with Polanski - Carnage begins and ends with sequences showing the two boys, Zachary Cowan (Elvis Polanski) and Ethan Longstreet (Eliot Berger), at play and at war. Absent from the play, these bookend scenes - which take place in the open and communal environment of a park - highlight the claustrophobia and egotism in that meeting of grown-ups, as the narrative proper unfolds within the confines of Michael and Penelope's apartment in New York.
Indeed, the film might be taken as an update of Jean-Paul Sartre's existential drama No Exit, seen through a capitalistic, 21st century prism - with computers, mobile phones, coffee-table art books and contraband cigars as stage furniture. (One of Michael's lines midway into this 79-minute melee indicates the alienation felt by the protagonists: 'We're born alone and we die alone - who wants a little Scotch?')
In fact, commodity fetishism is ultimately to blame for the chaos: the two couples have already settled upon a joint statement about what happened between the boys, and Nancy and Alan could have left much earlier if not for the former's unwise decision to literally bite off more than she could digest (thanks to the petit-bourgeois obsession with coffee and cake) and the latter's ceaseless attachment to his Blackberry.
Despite some interesting mise-en-scene and a remarkable ensemble performance, Carnage is a few edgy moments short of being the explosive drama first imagined on stage; the occasional cut from one space to another - which sometimes gives cinema an edge over theatre - works against Polanski's attempt to stretch the tension ever closer to breaking point.
And then there are the director's sly attempts to infuse the film with small, auteurist allusions to his own life. Such reference-spotting games, however, only point to the film's limited nature.
While funny and vibrant in parts, Carnage remains a lesser chamber piece in Polanski's oeuvre.
Carnage opens today