Last night, I was invited to a preview screening of Roman Polanski‘s new film. It was never likely to end happily. It was a bit like a Jew being invited to a screening of the Nazi propaganda movie Triumph of the Will, except that Triumph of the Will was an artistic success.
Let us get ‘the Polanski factor’ out of the way first. As any regular reader of this blog will know, I think the rich fugitive rapist should be rotting in some stinking prison cell in California.
Personally, I would not finance a movie directed by some criminal who drugged, raped and buggered a 13 year-old girl and then fled the country to escape justice – and I know something about financing films involving criminals. But Polanski’s showbiz friends seem to think an ‘artist’ of his ‘stature’ (an ironic description, given that he is vertically-challenged) should be forgiven for what they see as a past minor crime. They and I perhaps have different opinions on that – and on our choice of meaning for that crucial word ‘minor’.
I never much rated his early Knife in the Water nor Cul De Sac. But Repulsion was very effectively paranoid, Dance of The Vampires was brilliant and his Playboy-financed version of Macbeth - the first film he directed after his wife Sharon Tate was butchered by the Charles Manson ‘family’ - is one of the two best movie Shakespeares I have ever seen (the other being Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet).
Whether or not he has made great art in the past is somewhat irrelevant; artistic merit is no mitigation against serious criminal charges.
We also have to bear in mind that all views of movies are personal views. So, for example, when I saw Polanski’s allegedly comic new movie last night, it sounded to me as if the publicists had inserted ‘laughers’ in the third row to lead the hoped-for audience merriment: it is always difficult to ‘dub’ laughter naturalistically and the guffaws appeared to be slightly misplaced.
I may have been wrong, though.
Later, coming out of the screening, I talked to a comedian I know and his friend. They had both genuinely enjoyed the movie and had laughed in many places. So I was perhaps wrong in finding the thing a totally laugh-free zone – although, in my defence, they did compare the movie to Cat On a Hot In Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, neither of which I see as laugh-a-minute raucous comedies.
So… let us get to the movie itself: Carnage, which has some passing aspiration to depth with references to atrocities in Darfur and the Congo and to the God of Carnage. At the start, it includes the line “If this kid gets away with hitting people, why would he stop?” – a line included apparently without any intentional irony, despite Polanski’s past – and, towards the end, it includes a line about how, morally, you are supposed to control your compulsions “but sometimes you can’t”.
If only the script actually addressed these points. But it does not.
This is the sort of film that actors admire.
It has four excellent actors – Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz – getting their teeth into what looks less like a movie script and more like an Actors Studio limbering-up performance piece. It is a sub-Edward Albee claustrophobic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? style extravaganza of psychology and showy performance. Jodie Foster, with the showiest, juiciest role, displays genuinely brilliant Oscar-worthy acting of a type that Academy voters love.
But the thing I saw last night is not a movie. It might be a good stage play (which is what it originated as) or even a radio play or it certainly could be a cheap TV play, but there is no reason on God’s earth for it to be made as a big screen movie.
With the exception of a brief opening MacGuffin and a brief final coda set outside, the entire 79-minute film takes place in real time inside a New York apartment (though it was shot in Paris because Polanski is a fugitive from justice in the US).
I describe the opening scene as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin because, really, it does not matter what the protagonists are arguing about. The plot is that four people – two couples – argue throughout with each other in varying configurations. What they argue about is almost irrelevant. The plot is the psychological arc of their arguing though, it has to be said, it is aimless and, ultimately, reaches no climactic end resolution.
I suspect Polanski (who co-adapted the stage script and is therefore partly to blame) may have been attracted by the chance to show he can keep an audience’s attention in a single location as Alfred Hitchcock successfully did in Rear Window and Dial M For Murder or Oliver Stone did in Talk Radio.
It is visually competent, but no more – though Polanski shows-off to film students and cineastes by placing one wall mirror in the apartment’s living room and three in the bathroom – mirrors are difficult for directors to shoot round. But what is the point of this film other than, when it comes down to it, a self-indulgent acting exercise?
The movie does not have the psychological depth it aspires to and, though well-acted, it is a shallow shouting match between four people. It never seems to be going anywhere and, in fact, never reaches anywhere. The film just ends without warning or meaning.
I never laughed once and, as far as I could see, the only humour in the film came when Kate Winslet unexpectedly vomited on a coffee table. There was a knee-jerk laugh. But, if you have to rely on an unexpected vomit for your laughs, you are in big trouble.
Give me a knob gag any day.
From my humourless viewpoint, the marketing strategy on this film appears to be wildly misconceived. A comedy movie it is not. It is like selling Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a comedy. Why bother? If anything, it is a filmed actors’ showcase within a stage context.
At the end of his excellent, though over-rated, movie Chinatown, someone got shot. With this new movie, it should have been Roman Polanski himself.
I was going to compare the movie (filmed a year ago) to the Emperor’s New Clothes but, really, I think I will settle on describing it as a movie which should have been released at Christmas. That is the traditional time to sell turkeys.