Fans of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage will wonder what happened when that Tony-winning stage play was adapted for the screen by the playwright for her friend, director Roman Polanski, and redubbed simply Carnage. At Alice Tully Hall Friday night, where the movie opened the New York Film Festival, audiences cheered Polanski's credit, knowing that this master Academy Award-winning filmmaker would not attend. He was, as it were, a presence in absence.
In the film, housewares wholesaler Michael (John C. Reilly) says he believes in the god of carnage, but minus god, the film version still stays close to the stage play's tropes: a pas de quatre, two couples attempting to find a just resolution for the playground assault of one 11-year old child on his classmate. Confined to a Brooklyn living room, soon their polite, constrained behavior gives way to verbal and physical violence a la Edward Albee's masterpiece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- plus the famous projectile vomit.
Yes, it is the demure Nancy's (Kate Winslet) as she sickens over fruit cobbler, or was it the nausea-inducing talk of crime and accountability? What is the appropriate punishment? Apology? These matters, high on the agenda of upper middle class parents and their offspring, intersect with the Zeitgeist at its most vulnerable point. The high seriousness of this discourse becomes hilarious. The way Michael works to rescue his wife Penelope's (Jodie Foster) out of print Kokoscka catalog wielding a hair dryer, Alan's (Cristoph Waltz) cell phone afloat in a vase of tulips. Minus god, carnage rules.
But what of Polanski, so recently confined under house arrest, and missing from the honor of seeing his Carnage open the NYFF? Despite many accolades including his Academy Award for The Pianist (2002), his last film in this prestigious festival was his debut feature Knife in the Water in 1963. At the after party at The Harvard Club, a huge and lavish three-story schmooze fest, the topic of Polanski's state vis a vis our justice system still fascinates film industry insiders. At what point do we say, enough is enough?
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.