Some boys are arguing in a park but we are too far away to hear what it is about. One of them whacks another in the face with a stick.
And then we are in a spacious apartment as the parents of the two boys are at the computer, finishing up a joint statement about what happened. The parents of the boy with the stick are Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), who have come to the home of the boy who was hit, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) for a civilized conversation about what happened. Everyone is polite, even gracious. The Longstreets have decorated for guests with a vase of tulips and offer homemade cobbler. The Cowans compliment their hosts. There ar social smiles and reassuring comments all around. The Cowans walk toward the elevator to go home.
And then — they don’t whack each other in the face with sticks. It’s much worse than that.
Based on the Tony award-winning play by French playwright Yasmina Reza and scripted by Reza and director Roman Polanski, this is a sly and ultimately devastating story about the thin veneer of civilization and its uneasy co-existence with the savage spirit within us all. If things had gone well, the Cowans might have made it to the elevator and as soon as its doors closed both couples would have immediately started talking about how impossible the other couple was and how superior their own child was. But the Cowans just can not let that last statement go, so they march back into the Longstreets’ apartment to begin to attack, first with thinly veiled digs, then with stark, direct statements, then with insults, then with chaos.
This is not just about the social hypocrisy of privileged New Yorkers. The play was originally French and the director is originally Polish and famously living outside the United States to avoid imprisonment for statutory rape. Its treatment of its characters is as brutal as their treatment of each other. Every shred of pretense is stripped away — the pretense of a loving relationship, of being good parents, of concern for the injured child, of concern for each other and for the world at large. Everything politely overlooked in the first half hour (Alan’s constant interruptions to answer his cell phone to defend a drug in litigation over the adverse side effects, a cherished item, the tulips, the merits of the cobbler) comes back up (literally and graphically, in the case of the cobbler). The Longstreets bring out the hard liquor and cigars and alliances shift from couples-based to gender-based to everyone for his and her self. Reza makes it about more than the fatuous insularity of upper-class New Yorkers but does not go overboard. When Michael trashes Penelope’s concern for the deprivations and injustice in Africa, both are portrayed as insular and unhelpful. And a hopeful note in a coda shows her to be gentler with her characters than they are with each other.
Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, hostile insults, some gross-out moments, drinking and drunkenness.
Family discussion: How are the disputes between the children and the adults similar? How do the alliances shift over the course of the meeting and why?
If you like this, try: “Six Degrees of Separation”