The message is simple: beneath the veneer of civility lurk our baser and more real selves — selfish, petty, ugly and violent. Roman Polanski’s film, Carnage, follows the descent of two bourgeois New York couples from strained politeness to drunken hysteria as they try to find a resolution to their sons’ playground scuffle. Set in the high-rise Brooklyn apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jody Foster and John C. Reilly), the film — an adaptation of a play “Le dieu du carnage” by Yasmina Reza — pits four well-to-do parents against each other as they come to the realization that children not only pay for the crimes of their fathers, but they also must repeat them.
The movie is a moral tale told in a laughing comedic voice that highlights the silliness of each of the characters and their accompanying obsession. Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) is glued to his phone; his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet) fidgets with her hair and makeup; Michael has his black-market cigars and single-malt scotch; and Penelope glories in her art collection and catalogues. They’re all phonies, the film tells us, hiding behind their middle-class accessories in order to avoid real human contact.
But, although each character is as equally ridiculous as the next, it is the mothers who shoulder the burden of the blame. By the end of the film, the men sit with bemused looks on their faces as the two women hurl insults and tulips at each other. The fathers knew all along that this meeting was pointless — that coming to a civilized agreement about how to handle their children would never happen. But the women insisted that civility was possible as they ushered their husbands in and out of rooms, offering coffee and cobbler and compliments.
Women are the civilizing force in this film, struggling to keep at bay the violence that men — and their sons — enact. But their task is not only futile, it’s foolish — and, apparently, it’s what is wrong with middle-class liberal America. Although the men are far from innocent, they manage to escape blame. They model themselves after “Ivanhoe” and “John Wayne” — which is silly, everyone agrees. But it’s also cute and endearing and — as Nancy finally admits — appealing.
But women — like Penelope, the most offensive of the bunch (and also pretty awesomely pulled off by Foster) — sit in their civilized world, surrounded by African artifacts and fine art, and lecture you on how to love and parent your child all the while mumbling about the cleaning lady and showing more concern over an old book than an ailing fellow human. So that, even though Alan is obviously a shitty guy — a corporate lawyer protecting the interests of a pharmaceutical company selling harmful medication — he is the one who holds the film’s message about the “god of carnage” that lives within us all. The know-it-all woman gets a lesson on life from the asshole.
If you follow trends in mothering blogs and mothering literature, you know that it’s a messed up, volatile world. As a recent New York Times debate revealed, the discourse among and between mothers is fraught with strained politeness, paranoid defensiveness, and desperate appeals that everyone just get along. As Erica Jong implies in her contribution, this debate is a first-world problem and all these mothers worrying about the very perfect way to raise their children — attached or cribbed, nursed or bottled — have the unacknowledged time and money to do so. Penelope and Nancy come to represent these first-class mothers, more concerned with appearing to be the perfect mother than actually connecting with their sons.
It’s a sad situation — and if anything’s “unfeminist” about the present-day mother it’s all the blame and anger getting thrown around by mothers and to mothers. The film throws in its contribution to this carnage around mothers. While the men can be men — allowed to retain their fantasy of John Wayne and masculinity — the women are stripped of all their illusions so that we can see these mothers for what they “really” are — hysterics.