Mirrors, Tulips and Kokoschka

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Roman Polanski’s Carnage was on TV a couple of nights ago, and I finally got to watch it (watching films on BBC HD is a real treat for detail-obsessed film buffs by the way -the broadcast quality is superb).

The reason I have wanted to watch this film since it came out 5 years ago is because it was designed by one of my heroes: Dean Tavoularis. I was intrigued to find out what the man who designed The Godfather and Apocalypse Now could do with a film that takes place entirely in a New York apartment. What imposing design feature, what grand colour scheme, what epic location build could a designer, even as talented and distinguished as Tavoularis, fit in one set? Would the set bear the signature of Tavoularis’ greatness or would it resemble the work of an ordinary, unexceptional designer?

Due to the setting –a middle class apartment in Brooklyn where two couples tear each other apart verbally after their kids have a fight – there are obvious parallels with films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and with Hitchcock’s Rope, both shot entirely in one set. The former even earned an Oscar for Production Design, but this was in an earlier era, when awards were not reserved for mega-budget, effects-driven films. Carnage is much funnier than these other films (the hilarious scene where Kate Winslet’s character vomits on a rare Kokoschka art catalogue is also ironic, since Kokoschka started his career by painting scenes with children) but boasts equally brilliant performances.

Tavoularis’ design is as personal as in any film he has ever worked on. Observant viewers will spot the carefully selected props, accurate and character-personalized to the smallest detail. The Africa-influenced art and tribal objects reflect Jodie Fosters’ character’s obsession with the continent, while the oversized table lamps point to her work (and class) aspirations. The carefully placed mirrors (look for the one ingeniously placed at an angle directly opposite the front door) are a small reminder of Tavoularis’ ability to use objects as metaphors. And then there are the tulips – one cannot help but make the connection with the oranges in The Godfather trilogy.

Built in the studios of Bry, 10 kilometres outside Paris, this great little set is as New York and as “Tavoularis” as can be. And Carnage is a little gem of a film I highly recommend.

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