There is a tiny detail in “Carnage,” the new Roman Polanski film that opened this year’s New York Film Festival, something small but telling in the excellent production design by Dean Tavoularis. The film, which is almost a verbatim rendering of Jewish playwright Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” is a sardonic reflection on how well-intentioned and soi-disant sophisticated New Yorkers deal with the intrusion of violence on a small scale into their lives. As part of Tavoularis’ living room set, in which most of the action takes place, there is a piano with music stand, complete with assorted sheet music. On the corner of an open page of music one spies what appears to be blood spatter. As the film works through its brief 80-minute duration, we see that image again but closer, and eventually it comes to resemble a cartoon splotch like something out of the kids’ cable channel Nickelodeon.
That gradual transformation is a perfect visual metaphor for the trajectory of Polanski’s film. At the outset, it seems to be a somewhat barbed satire of class relations in New York, with the upper-class Cowans (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) visiting the middle-class Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), to put to rest a playground incident in which their son Zachary hit Ethan Longstreet with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth, the sort of altercation between 10-year-olds that used to be settled between the kids.
Reza’s play takes the two couples through all the possible stages of negotiation, from obsequiousness through belligerence and back again, with the women pairing off against the men, the couples against one another and everyone else against Penelope (Foster), the lone holdout voice for some mushy version of enlightened progressivism. Reza ruthlessly caricatures every possible point of view from left to right until the verbiage becomes just so much point-scoring silliness. It’s a feast for four actors looking for a play that reads like the result of one improv game too many, and Winslet, Waltz and Reilly are clearly having a ball switching sides for every possible permutation.
But it is Foster who is the revelation here. Playing a demented version of her touchy-feely mom act, she gradually transmutes into a character out of a Tex Avery cartoon. You keep waiting for her head to explode, her eyes to bug out on stalks, her tongue to wrap itself around her neck while stars burst out of her nose and smoke gushes from her ears. She and Polanski manage to find the next nearest thing, and the result is simply hilarious.
Therein lies the basic problem with the film, or at any rate, the play. It’s a live-action Warner Brothers Merry Melodie run amok. Polanski plays against the text’s overload by parsing the visual tracking deftly, shifting power vectors between the characters with a deadpan precision that makes the whole thing tick over like a finely honed machine. For a guy whose childhood was spent running from the Nazis, this is a cakewalk, and the threat of violence, never very serious, is given as much weight as it deserves, which is very little.
As a result, “Carnage” is minor Polanski, deliciously well crafted and very, very funny, but rather inconsequential, a showcase for some very clever acting turns, bracketed by a smart pair of scenes that take the film briefly outdoors without doing violence to its essential structure.
The violence in Nadav Lapid’s directorial feature debut, “Policeman,” is all too real, although mostly unseen. One of two Israeli features in this year’s festival, the film focuses on Yaron (Yiftach Klein), one of five members of an elite counterterrorism unit within the police who are facing possible legal action in the wake of an attack that went horribly wrong. These guys live for one another, and as we see them in the first third of the film, little else. They have wives and even kids but, as becomes quickly clear from Yaron’s conduct with his very pregnant wife, family life exists mainly as an adornment that testifies yet again to their masculinity. Yaron is much more attuned to the needs of Ariel, a colleague who is suffering from a tumor that may be cancerous. When we see him with a friend’s baby, he is hefting the little guy while looking into a mirror, as if he is trying on the image for size.
That shot is echoed in the middle section of the film when Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a would-be radical leftist briefly watches herself handling a pistol in a mirror in her parents’ sumptuous apartment. The shift from Yaron, his wife and his buddies to Shira and her terrorist wannabes is abrupt and total, until their paths cross in the final movement of the film. It’s an eccentric and gutsy choice, made all the more effective by the fact that — much as Shira’s play-acting for the mirror is an echo of Yaron’s — the two groups are grotesque parodies of one another, two quintets prepared to kill for no apparent reason.
What finally unites them is the sheer pointlessness of their actions. Shira and her cell are a ludicrous parody of Olivier Assayas’s savage “Carlos,” rebels without a clue; the counterterrorism unit apparently shoots as many bystanders as terrorists, although Lapid treats it with a restrained seriousness. The overall tone of the film is a sort of freeze-dried neo-realism, low-key, uninflected and minimalist in décor and tone. Scenes begin in medias res and end abruptly. Dialogue is terse and elliptical, bringing to mind the tone of Raymond Carver’s best short stories (or, more likely, Etgar Keret).
The overall effect is bleak, right down to the final shots in which Yaron seems to make eye contact and a real connection with someone for the only time in the film. Unfortunately for him, the other person is a corpse, someone he has killed.
The 49th annual New York Film Festival will run through Oct. 16 at the Walter Reade Theatre (165 W. 65th St.) and other nearby locations. For information go to www.filmlinc.com.