Roman Holiday

Roman Polanski, Carnage, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 80 minutes. Penelope Longstreet, Michael Longstreet, Alan Cowan, and Nancy Cowan (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet).

“HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE,” the money line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944), could easily serve as the subtitle to the latest film by Roman Polanski, master director and controversial exile. Based on the award-winning 2006 play Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) by French playwright and novelist Yasmina Reza, Carnage is a minor, stagey film that returns the Polish filmmaker to the physical and emotional claustrophobia of the boat in Knife in the Water (1962) and the apartment in Repulsion (1965), as well as to the misanthropic gallows humor of Cul-de-sac (1966). The narrative draws on a well-worn dramatic trope—No Exit and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) being just two examples; since the 1980s, they’re too numerous to count—that of the small group of presumably normal adults who come together in an enclosed space and, over time, degenerate into psychological sadism and monstrous behavior. In this case, two sets of parents—a power couple (corporate lawyer and investment broker) and a liberal couple (bathroom-fixture wholesaler and author/activist/bookstore clerk)—meet in the latter couple’s apartment to negotiate the aftermath of the power couple’s son injuring the liberal couple’s son with a stick in Brooklyn Bridge Park. As for how things turn out, see above.

In several respects, Carnage feels like Polanski’s version of a late Woody Allen film—a modest, naturalistic production that gathers great actors, nurtures their craft, and doesn’t let a lot of “cinema” get in the way. (That both men have been semi-disgraced by personal peccadilloes, but are beloved of the best actors the world has to offer, merely reinforces the parallel.) Nevertheless, Polanski is too much of an artist to simply film a one-set play, and one can see the director and his talented cameraman, Pawel Edelman, trying to make the most out of the limited visual material. The apartment-bound, real-time constraints of Carnage recall Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) with cuts, and Polanski’s frequent use of actor close-ups threatens the status of Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949) as the ultimate face-off in film history. Carnage was shot in Paris, but veteran production designer Dean Tavoularis completely nails a contemporary Brooklyn Heights apartment, and the views of Brooklyn and Manhattan through the windows are bluescreen magic. I was perfectly willing to believe that Polanski somehow smuggled himself into New York for the shoot.

With three Oscar winners and one nominee, the cast is hard to fault. While Jodie Foster (as the humorless, politically correct author/activist) and Kate Winslet (as the buttoned-up investment broker) are not natural comics, they both acquit themselves well, with Foster’s neck veins bulging as she huffs about “suffering in Africa” and (spoiler alert) Winslet delivering the most effective onscreen vomit since The Exorcist (1973). John C. Reilly (as the wholesaler) adds some edge to his schlumpy, regular-guy persona—peppering his standard Norm-from-Cheers routine with dashes of Archie Bunker, and Christoph Waltz, best known for his utterly chilling turn as the unctuous, ingratiating Nazi in Inglourious Basterds (2009), is perfect as the glibly self-satisfied corporate attorney, constantly interrupting the action as he fields BlackBerry calls about a bad-drug scandal unfolding for one of his Big Pharma clients. Hints of his native Viennese accent only add to his unforced air of urbane venality. The “carnage” the characters inflict on one another is overstated; there’s gobs more in Albee’s play, for instance, and Polanski himself has gone much further than this in his best films. One hopes that he returns to the locational breadth of latter-day triumph The Ghost Writer (2010), but Carnage will satisfy fans of Polanski and the four actors, and if you’re a parent, it will make you feel a bit better about yourself.

So, not exactly The Tenant (1976), but what is?

Carnage opens the 49th New York Film Festival on Friday, September 30.