With "Carnage," a pungent tale of love and sacrifice, French filmmaker Delphine Gleize has fashioned a modest epic about our ridiculous human comedy. A melancholic satire in which laughter mingles with tears, the film begins on a biblical note with the blood of a bull, a magnificent animal that meets his fate in an Andalusian bullring. Unlike his storybook counterpart Ferdinand, who sniffed buttercups while lazing under a shade tree, this bull shows no reluctance, no doubt and no mercy -- for him it's gore or be gored.
True to his killing nature, alas, the bull's opponent shows no mercy, either. Although the animal nearly disembowels the matador, the animal falls dead. As the matador is rushed to a hospital, the bull is carted to a slaughterhouse, where its remains are carved into pieces that are subsequently scattered across Spain and France.
In Spain, the flesh is carved into a steak for a gourmand; in France, a bone becomes a treat for a family's lovingly indulged pet. The bull's eyes also end up in France, where a boy rolls them across a floor like marbles. Elsewhere, an old woman buys its horns as a present -- a purchase that somehow leads to one death, two reunions, a cortege of snowy bunnies and five identically dressed little girls.
The bull's body nourishes the characters as well as the story, with each morsel a piece of a larger puzzle. In France, a young actress, Carlotta (Chiara Mastroianni), sells one of its bones to a family with a massive Great Dane named Fred. Adrift and alone, Carlotta has landed a gig in a supermarket where she peddles Spanish delicacies while dressed like a sideshow senorita. When not peddling jerky and dog treats, Carlotta splashes about in a swimming pool where she toils through a rebirthing class. Like Winnie (Raphaelle Molinier), the spooky-eyed young girl whose family owns the Great Dane, there's something mysterious about Carlotta, something a little hungry. When she sells that bone she looks very much like a woman who desperately needs one tossed back in return.
She isn't the only one. A film about the struggle with essential aloneness, "Carnage" is filled with children and parents, friends and strangers for whom the next person is always slightly out of reach. Each character bears some kind of wound, evidence of the violence of daily existence.
Unlike the bull that ends up providing so much human sustenance, the people in "Carnage" are consistently -- at times even comically -- incapable of sustaining one another. Winnie's mother and father habitually ignore her in favor of their dog, a dynamic that finds a painful echo in the relationship between Winnie's schoolteacher and the teacher's mother, a dreamy beauty lost in the past. One way or another, parents wreak most of the violence in the film and reap most of the damage too.
Gleize never questions whether the bull deserved to die on behalf of such a feckless group, but she acknowledges the full measure of the sacrifice. Throughout the story, the barbarism of the bullring finds an echo in characters who turn their relationships into a kind of blood sport. They poke and jab at one another, scoring hits and opening wounds. There's undeniable pathos to many of these encounters, and because the director has a wonderful feel for color and knows how to throw a frame around the world, there's also unmistakable beauty. Best of all, because Gleize recognizes the absurdity and pointlessness of so much of our everyday agonies -- unlike the bull, these characters aren't fighting for their lives, only for ways to feel alive -- she never once mistakes this comedy for tragedy.
MPAA rating: Unrated.
Times guidelines: Violence against animals, butchering, nudity, adult language.
Released by Wellspring Cinema. Writer, director Delphine Gleize. Director of photography Crystel Fournier. Sound Pierre Andre. Producers Balthazar Productions, Oasis Producciones, Need Productions, PCT Cinema Television, France 3 Cinema, StudioCanal France, Canal +, Rtbf, Tsr with the support of Eurimages. In French and Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-6379.