NY Film Festival: Polanski gets his U.S. welcome wagon
At the North American premiere of Roman Polanski's new movie on Friday night, the auteur's specter hung over the New York Film Festival's Lincoln Center with a creepy ethereality that would have fit nicely in, well, a vintage Roman Polanski film.
"Carnage," an adaptation of the stage hit "God of Carnage," played to the festival's opening-night crowd of cineastes, society types and film executives who, judging by the reaction, were almost unanimously sympathetic to the polarizing director.
Barred from entering the United States on longstanding statutory rape charges, Polanski of course didn't turn up. But his screenwriting collaborator, playwright Yasmina Reza; his producer, an up-and-comer named Said Ben Said; and actors John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster each took the stage before the screening, their presence offering a kind of implicit tribute to the director. (Reilly and Foster's co-star, Christoph Waltz, had been scheduled to make the trip but had to scrap it at the last moment because of an undisclosed accident; fellow performer Kate Winslet was also not there.)
Before the screening, NYFF chief Richard Pena summoned the spirit of Polanski when he called the filmmaker "a poet of small spaces ... in just a couple of rooms he can conjure up an entire world, an entire society."
Photos: Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly at the 'Carnage' premiere
The movie that followed lent truth to that statement -- except for an opening and closing shot, "Carnage" takes place over the course of one afternoon in a single apartment.
Centering on two very different sets of New York helicopter parents (Foster and Reilly and Winslet and Waltz), "Carnage" describes the day the couples meet to discuss an act of bullying one of their children perpetrated against the other. What begins as a narrow look at different approaches to child-rearing soon becomes a larger examination of morality and what happens when an (apparently thin) layer of civility becomes unglued.
Despite its serious undertones, the movie drew a surprising amount of laughter from the opening-night crowd, while the ovation at its conclusion was enthusiastic, if not overwhelmingly so.
Polanski is one of the more interesting variables this fall season. Since his case came back to the fore several years ago -- thanks to the HBO documentary "Wanted and Desired" as well as his arrest at the Zurich Film Festival -- Polanski has engendered fresh rounds of both sympathy and vitriol.
But with his new movie, the director's personal and creative lives could become entwined, particularly when it comes to the question of just how significant a factor "Carnage" will be on the award circuit. The director is certainly being positioned for a big run, his biggest, perhaps, since the Oscar favorite "The Pianist" nine years ago. The work will be judged, but so will the man, and Polanski's personal standing, depending on whom you ask, could either substantially help or hurt him with voters. (No such litmus test was present with his previous film, the 2010 Ewan McGregor-starrer "The Ghost Writer," which was a thriller that came out in the spring and did not get a major awards push.)
Still, the buzz immediately after the "Carnage" screening centered on the performances -- particularly Reilly's goofy Everyman and Foster's earnest bleeding-heart -- far more than the director. The film's tight quarters and dearth of locations did not give rise to the kind of buzz that a flashier piece of direction might have, and Polanski didn't come out of the evening with any kind of frontrunner status.
"Carnage," which previously played at the Venice Film Festival, will make its next important stop on the circuit when it comes to Los Angeles for an AFI Fest engagement, according to people familiar with the festival's slate, likely as a centerpiece presentation.
Polanski won't be there. But the movie-industry types who have largely supported the director in recent years, will be, and like the crowd at Lincoln Center, they can speak volumes.
--Steven Zeitchik, reporting from New York
Photo: Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly attend the gala presentation of "Carnage" at the New York Film Festival. Credit: Charles Sykes / Associated Press.