Directed by Delphine Gleize. Starring Ángela Molina, Chiara Mastroianni, Lucia Sanchez, Julien Lescarret, Féodor Atkine, Lio, Jacques Gamblin, Raphaëlle Molinier. (2002, NR, 130 min.)
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Dec. 5, 2003
Carnage probably isn’t a great film, but it’s the most ambitious and assured feature debut in recent memory, and it is certainly distinctive. Writer-director Gleize juggles an amazing matrix of interwoven plots, voices, moods, and settings with surprising facility. Each of her characters lives in a fully realized orbit; each fragment of the polyphonous story feels entirely of itself. When her characters begin inexorably gravitating toward one another, crossing paths with results that range from devastating to droll, it seems less a plot trick (à la Pulp Fiction and its ilk) than a philosophical statement about the interconnectedness of human life and feeling. Oh, the French. As typically Gallic is the film’s occasional bizarre note (a chorus of burn victims sing, an eccentric leads a primal-scream aquatherapy class in a diaphanous black ball gown), which reminded me periodically of Monty Python’s "French Film" skit ("I see that you have a cabbage" – "I am a revolutionary"). And the pacing is slower than an IV drip. But while Carnage requires a lot of indulgence from the viewer, it’s largely worthy of the investment. Watching it is like truly inhabiting its world. A dysfunctional marriage simmers while the pregnant wife (Lio) awaits the start of her labor. An aging beauty (Molina) keeps a secret from her daughter (Sanchez), a preschool teacher with an eerily insightful epileptic pupil (Molinier). A taxidermist (Bernard Sens) celebrates his birthday in the squalid trailer he shares with his mother (Esther Gorintin) – in these scenes, particularly, you can almost smell the stench of preservatives and feel dribbles of sweat. Connecting them all are the various parts of the body of a bull butchered after goring a cocksure young torero (Lescarret) in the ring. Dainty music-box melodies on the film’s evocative soundtrack counterpoint the image of the bull’s carcass being dragged through the dirt and hefted up on a truck; this ironic and grim perspective is typical of Gleize’s vision. But she’s not pessimistic: There is legitimate beauty in her grave, odd world – in her breathtaking compositions of the gaze of the little girl, in the halting friendship between an actress (Mastroianni, who is excellent) and a strange suicidal man – despite the baseness of the flesh, despite the horrible things characters do and say to each other. Needless to say, Carnage is ill-suited to casual viewing. But its challenges are worthwhile, and the gifted Gleize is one to watch.