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Spooky poetry of `Carnage' is smothered by symbolism

The central conceit of "Carnage," the debut feature by the young French filmmaker Delphine Gleize, is novel by any reasonable definition of the term. After a bull is killed in the ring and sent to a slaughterhouse, pieces of his body are sent to different corners of Europe, where they mystically affect the people with whom they come in contact. The movie's well played and has a spooky poetic resonance, but you may suspect another aspect of the bull was involved. The bull's name is Romero, Spanish for "rosemary," an herb (the production notes tell me) believed in Spain to have healing powers. Not for Romero, unfortunately: He's dispatched by young matador Victor (Julien Lescarret, himself a bullfighter) but not before goring the boy and putting him into a coma.

As Romero's body parts are dismembered, packed, and shipped -- Gleize films the grisly abattoir scenes with detachment -- we get glimpses of the characters whose lives he will change. Many of them seem caught in private locksteps of duty and illusion. In Belgium, a research scientist (Jacques Gamblin) cheats on his pregnant wife (Lio); the delivery of Romero's eyes helps to open his own. Somewhere out in the country, his taxidermist brother (Bernard Sens) lives under the smothering affections of their aged mother (Esther Gorintin), who presents him with the bull's horns as a gift.

Most of "Carnage" -- which, despite the title and slaughterhouse sequences, is more concerned with inner violence -- takes place in northern France. Here the central figure is Winnie (Raphaelle Molinier), a sweet-faced, tough-minded little girl whose parents seem more attentive to the family Great Dane and whose epileptic seizures bring her classroom to a breathless halt. Winnie's teacher (Lucia Sanchez) receives a visit from her own mother (Angela Molina), a hard woman with secrets in her past; there's also a bereft young actress (Chiara Mastroianni) and a suicidal young man on roller skates (Clovis Cornillac). Romero leads them all toward reckonings they don't know they crave.

Gleize has a number of award-winning short films under her belt, and she directs this magical-realist fable with originality and disarming confidence. The pace is one of dreamy seriousness and the performances are quiet, even stunned: These are characters observing their lives from the outside. Gleize is capable of pulling out images from some cinematic subconscious -- there's a therapy class in a community pool that resembles a synchronized-swimming version of Michelangelo's Pieta -- but one senses, after a while, that too much of the film is unfolding under the surface. The connections are allusive, the poetry is private, and the cumulative impact is buried beneath downy layers of symbolism.

It's a treat, nevertheless, to watch the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni in a rare leading role. Chiara Mastroianni has her mother's hair and face with her father's sorrowful eyes stuck smack in the middle, and she moves as if conscious of the weight of her genetic splendor.

By contrast, Angela Molina has a nervy arrogance that gives the movie a lift whenever she's on-screen. This actress has her own pedigree: She has worked with such world-class directors as Luis Bunuel, Pedro Almodovar, and Lina Wertmuller, and she breaks through Gleize's studied cool without breaking her stride. Molina's the real bull here, and "Carnage" doesn't get nearly enough of her.

** 1/2

Ty Burr can be reached at

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