Thursday, November 17, 2011
STAGE TO FILM: CARNAGE & A DANGEROUS METHOD
I recently had the opportunity to see two movies awaiting release, both by acclaimed, veteran filmmakers, both based on plays: Carnage, adapted (from Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage) and directed by Roman Polanski, and A Dangerous Method, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure and directed by David Cronenberg. Aside from being based on plays, these movies have little in common, but having watched them within a few days of each other I started thinking a bit about theater, film, the fundamental differences between them as media, and the challenges presented by adapting a work from one to the other.
This is something that's gotten harder over the years. For a period of several decades defined roughly as between the advent of sound and Technicolor (somewhere within which, or overspilling by a few years or so, is Hollywood's first Golden Age) the predominant style of filmmaking in Hollywood—and in the many world cinemas that take their cues from it—was such that adapting a play for the big screen entailed, to modern eyes, not much more than adding a couple establishing shots and closeups of movie stars. There was, clearly, more to it than that, but until about the beginning of the 1960s, adaptations of plays made up a large enough percentage of total movies that they stood out no more than adaptations of novels or any other pre-existing source material.
As cinema began to evolve into an increasingly distinct medium, with shorter takes, more fragmentation through editing, and the resultant effects of both on narrative style, it became harder to adapt plays for the screen without heavy alterations (a process often referred to in the reductive but not entirely inaccurate phrase “opening it up”). Also, theater has changed both in form and cultural cachet in the ensuing decades as well, reaching the point, today, where mainstream theater and mainstream film are thoroughly different beasts. Most theater pieces with sufficient brand recognition to catch Hollywood's attention are musicals, and every couple years or so, a studio will make one, though of this limited number an even more exclusive group truly work as cinema (though the way he edited the musical numbers drove a lot of people batshit, and he's no Bob Fosse, I still like Rob Marshall's Chicago; on the other hand, Rob Marshall's Nine was godawful, so maybe it's the old “broken clock is right twice a day” thing. . . .)
Despite movie musicals being far rarer than movies about people sitting in rooms talking, adapting plays about people sitting in rooms talking is far harder than it is a musical, in terms of making the end result “feel like a movie.” Something like David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross feels like a play that someone filmed rather than a movie, consisting as it does of a series of long dialogue scenes taking place in a limited number of locations. It's an extremely rare adaptation of a play that escapes this dynamic, though it does happen. The movie of Six Degrees of Separation, also adapted by its playwright, John Guare, is a fairly decent example. (Though now that I think about it, both those pictures are almost 20 years old . . .)
Sometimes, a filmmaker will embrace the staginess and theatricality when adapting a play, as Roman Polanski does with Carnage. The play, God of Carnage, is a piece for four actors, on one set, and “opening it up” would turn it into, essentially, an original screenplay about the same themes. Being confined to the apartment is fundamentally important to the piece being what it is. Roman Polanski, whatever else can be said about him, is not dumb, and his adaptation is not only set entirely in one apartment, but a not terribly large one.
After a dispute between two kids that results in one (the son of Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) knocking a couple of the other (the son of Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly)'s teeth out, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz go over to Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly's place to try and sort things out. The next hour and twenty minutes consists of them failing miserably.
Carnage is soooooo close to being really good. The four actors are all very much brand names—Reilly is the only one yet to win an Oscar, though he's been nominated and also is John C. Reilly, which is Gaelic for “dude can fucking act”—and the writing is sharp, and intelligent, with the two couples' shifting allegiances and the gradual revelation of each character's core self providing some interest. The only problem is, Carnage gets so much right that the things it doesn't stand out more. All four actors practically sweat blood (particularly Jodie Foster in a role that she's ever so slightly not right for for reasons that are a little beyond my ability to explain), acting up a storm, but this more serves to obfuscate how thin each character is on paper. They come across as four thumbnail sketches of different upper-middle-class archetypes than people, and try (and, credit where credit's due, mostly succeed) as the actors do, there are isolated tiny moments throughout where both the thinness and mundanity of the characters shine through.
Though, in spite of the fact that it kind of sounds like I'm saying it sucks, and in spite of the fact that it just ends without anything really being resolved (which may be, and probably is, the point), Carnage is still well worth a look for the sheer talent on display both behind and in front of the camera. Its concerns are personal rather than global, and thus within a very small frame of reference, but hey. So are a lot of things in life. And Christoph Waltz is great in it.
Much different—and I have to say, much more to my liking—was David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, which tells the story of how, in the years prior to World War I, Sabina Spielrein is brought to Carl Jung, who uses Sigmund Freud's “talking cure” to treat her “hysteria,” after which she becomes a major part of his life and work, and Freud's as well. She'd go on to become one of the first women psychoanalysts, treating such luminaries as Jean Piaget, but the movie leaves off well before then, focusing on her years with Jung and Freud.
The picture is being marketed as if it's a big steamy love triangle, and it has its steamy and kinky moments, though what it really is is the story of three incredibly smart academics who are in various degrees of denial about how fucked up they are. And, as such, it's a lot more compelling than some dumb quotidian sex story, and actually makes the sexy bits that much sexier.
After Jung (Michael Fassbender) determines that part of what's making Spielrein (Keira Knightley) freaked out and twitchy is that she's into BDSM (at a time when being a young woman who's into BDSM means your dad sends you to Switzerland if he's progressive), he decides—for reasons that have a lot more to do with his boner than science—to help her explore.
This is where it helps that this impeccably designed and gorgeously shot movie is directed by David Cronenberg, because once Spielrein and Jung get going, A Dangerous Method delivers on some good kink, boy, believe you me. It's just tame enough to not scare the squares, while still being vivid enough to be like “Damn . . .” It's rare that a (relatively) mainstream movie shows a woman having an orgasm, and Spielrein has a massive one, at the hands (literally) of Jung, who responds half afraid at the forbidden nature of what he and his (kind of sort of former) patient are up to and half thinking to himself “I made some good life choices.”
Most of A Dangerous Method is given over to the collaboration and eventual split between Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortenson), and the role Jung's young patient has in that split. The movie looks gorgeous, and avoids the “let's play dress up” tone that pervades many period pieces; it feels quite contemporary, which is largely due to the lack of affect (for the most part) to the writing and performances, both of which are abetted by Cronenberg's terrific direction.
Just about the only thing in the whole picture that keeps it from being completely seamless is Keira Knightley's performance as Spielrein. Fassbender and Mortenson are jaw-dropping good as Jung and Freud, particularly Viggo, he's fucking astonishing in this, and almost completely unrecognizable. Vincent Cassel shows up for a couple minutes as the mischievous fifth business character who convinces Fassbender's suffocatingly buttoned-up Jung to undo a couple buttons (specifically on his trousers), and he's great, even if he's mostly playing “Vincent Cassel” (it should be noted that there is nothing at fucking all wrong with Vincent Cassel playing “Vincent Cassel”). And Sarah Gadon—of whom I'd never heard before this, but for whom my eyes shall ever be peeled henceforth—is heartbreaking as Jung's wife, bound by society and tradition in ways Spielrein is decidedly not, trapped being a mother and having to turn a blind eye to her husband's infidelity and always coming second to his work.
All of the major cast, in other words, give tightly managed, sharp performances that hit all the necessary beats (and not mechanically at all, with considerable flair) except Keira Knightley. For a very large part of the first act, she's twitching insanely all over the place, until Jung's therapy chills her out, and after that, whenever she gets agitated, a lot of the twitching and odd vocal rhythms come back. In just about every scene, you see her trying to fit in and get on the other actors' rhythm but never consistently staying there. A lot of this has to do with the character of Sabina Spielrein going through the exact same thing—she's convinced that she's nuts, and she's not entirely off-base—and, at certain points in the movie, Keira Knightley absolutely nails that balance, but there are other points where she juuuuuuust misses with it. A lot of those misses, being just a hair flat or sharp on a given note, are due to her lacking the formal acting training that a lot of her co-stars have, but the thing is, the raw power of the moments when she's on-key are too. Most crucially, though, Spielrein's intelligence is something we're shown rather than told about. This is something that's true of Fassbender, Viggo, and Vincent Cassel too, lest one think I'm being condescending and going “Awww, lookit the girl, she's so smart, ain't that cute.” It's more that all the other smart people in the movie are more even-keeled and organized, so you never stop to think “Are they smart?” and she's so over-the-top crazy at first that it takes a while to sink in that she actually is really smart, not really hitting home until about the third act when she's talking about her thesis with Freud. That scene clinched it for me: she may not always hit it exactly, but Keira Knightley is quite good in the movie, and her being a little nuts and distracting at times fits with her character's role in the story. Also, the fact that she's awkward and not conventionally va-va-voom sexy (which is not to say that there aren't a couple heart-stopping shots of her, because there are) adds to the sense of Spielrein as a troubled nerd, which, considering that this is a world very much of nerds (their early 20th century variety, at any rate), fits. Finally, it's fitting in terms of form and content that a character who is so much the dramatic focus of the narrative be the focus of so much of a review of that movie.
A Dangerous Method is particularly timely, being set at much the same part of the 20th century as we are, today, in the 21st. Old ways of thinking are giving way to new, and much like Fassbender's Carl Jung, we're experiencing the dual feeling of fear and excitement at the unknown and unknowable future ahead. The movie balances a feeling of the old and the contemporary that speaks a lot more directly to the modern age than Carnage, set in the present, does.
But the two are different enough movies that comparisons aren't exactly fair, and with A Dangerous Method being released in the US on the 23rd and Carnage not until December 16th, enough time will have passed for viewers of both that any juxtapositions not for the purpose of looking at two different ways to adapt a play for the screen can be avoided. Both are well worth seeing, and will certainly be in the year-end discussion for acting (and in A Dangerous Method's case, design) awards, though Fassbender's performance in A Dangerous Method will almost surely be swept aside in his penis' quest to win an Oscar for Shame. Such are the vagaries of award season.