An Epitaph for the Selfish Charm of Yesterday's Bourgeoisie

Article excerpt

The middle class

If you have visited the cinema recently, you will be familiar with the scenario of Carnage, even if you have not actually seen the film; the promotional clips have been aired endlessly. Based on a stage play by Yasmina Reza and directed by Roman Polanski, with co- stars Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, the film charts an encounter between two very middle-class New York couples in the claustrophobic flat of one of them.

What begins as an oh-so-civilised attempt to settle a minor skirmish between their 11-year-old sons escalates into a no-holds- barred confrontation in which every contemporary middle-class shibboleth is broken - from the basics, such as hospitality and civility, through international politics, all the way to marriage, divorce, adultery, child discipline, business ethics and (of course) money. Discretion and restraint, the virtues that supposedly describe the bourgeoisie at its most refined, are dumped unceremoniously out of the high-rise window.

There are aspects of this drama that do not travel. Much of the fuss about a child's minor injury - a couple of teeth and a gash in the face - reflects the litigious culture of the United States and its health insurance system. You can also challenge the premise: how credible is it that such an encounter, even between such clearly contrasting couples, would degenerate as it did, without the visitors making their excuses and leaving? But that is not the point. The point is the shallowness of the civilised veneer and the ferocity of the conflicts raging beneath.

The other, more salient point, however, is that Carnage is just one, albeit the latest and most extreme, example of a spate of works - films, books, television - that puts today's middle class and its mores under the microscope. The Slap, an Australian novel not a million miles away from Carnage in subject matter, became a sleeper hit in the UK last year - followed by a popular television adaptation. The author, Christos Tsiolkas, relates the far-reaching and gruesome consequences that follow when a father hits a child who has threatened his young son at a family barbecue. His tale exposes many of the same - usually hidden - conflicts in social attitudes that underlie Carnage, with the taboo-breaking addition of race.

Similar themes also featured in Joanna Hogg's latest film, Archipelago, depicting an excruciating family get-together at a rented house in the Scilly Islands. Her characters inhabit the same confined world, in which physical proximity masks unbridgeable psychological and social divides. And they share many of the same anxieties - about relationships, work and ethics, plus specific hang- ups arising from social class.

A couple of British television successes - the rise and rise of the comedian Miranda Hart and the sitcom series Outnumbered - take a typically gentler approach, but start from essentially the same ground: the treacherous shifting sands of social attitudes among educated, generally white families and friends at the start of the 21st century. All are small-scale domestic dramas; they are played out in homes - with kitchens, sitting rooms and bathrooms - that are immediately familiar to their audiences, as are the disputes so painfully not discussed.

For this is also the point: if you look around your fellow filmgoers at, say, Carnage, you may observe that collectively they resemble many of the same individuals, in appearance and manner, as those depicted on the screen. …