August 30, 2012

I have never read Dom Delillo’s Cosmopolis (or, indeed, any of his novels), so approaching David Cronenberg’s film version is something of a tricky prospect.  It’s the first screenplay Cronenberg has written himself since eXistenZ, and I imagine an awful lot of it was lifted wholesale from the source.  There’s certainly no attempt to translate what seems to me to be a stilted, idiosyncratic voice into anything approaching naturalistic, and I can’t help but assume that is intentional.  That is not to say it isn’t cinematic, because quite the opposite is true – a lot of work has gone into the crafting, and for a very ‘talky’ film, it never suffers from the visually drab, stagey qualities that similarly wordy (usually play) adaptations so often do.  Still, many have written that this film is dull or asleep or, at the very least, “not for everyone”, and I can see why they came to those conclusions (I even agree with the last of those).  However, the dreamy, talky nature is part of the point, and it’s expression is cinematic despite its heavily reliance on the words.

The plot, such as it is, sees 28-year-old billionaire and titan of finance Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) travel across New York in a mighty fortress of a limo to get a haircut.  Along the way he will meet with consultants, his new wife Elise (Sarah Gadon), doctors, and others as protests appear, his car is attacked, a funeral procession goes by, and a credible threat against his life develops.  Despite all of these incidents, it progresses less as a traditional narrative than a series of interactions and conversations.  People worry and comment on his apparently self-destructive behaviour, but Packer himself doesn’t seem terribly bothered by any of it.  His distance from his own experiences prevents the traditionally exciting build of the ‘descent into hell’ story, despite the occasionally violent episodes in the later parts of the film. “Detachment” is the watchword that will be bandied about, and is no doubt a significant reason that many have found (and will find) it to be a cold, lifeless experience.  The film plays up the disconnect between the mind and the body, the ideas and the feelings, and the closed systems within which Packer operates and the reality of the outside world.  Packer thinks in terms of mathematical abstraction, and indeed, all forms of abstraction (surely it is no surprise that he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel and move it into his apartment) are central to Cosmopolis.

Using green screen in way that almost simulates rear projection, Cronenberg gets a mix of convincing effects and dreamlike unreality that is surprisingly effective in the numerous scenes that take place inside the limo.  Eric deigns to look outside and spot someone he knows or some strange event, but it’s always at a remove – by intention, for he has attempted to line his limo with cork to keep all the street noise out (he and Elise talk of the quiet of the country and the city), which makes for an awkward, disconcerting early scene when the only noise on the soundtrack seems to be the character’s voices.  When protestors attack the car, Eric just smirks and continues having a conversation with his theorist and adviser, Vija (Samantha Morton), about the future of capitalism.  As they watch a self-immolation outside the window, they discuss the merits of the practice, him considering the sensation and the pain and her dismissing it as ‘unoriginal’ in the most academic way possible.  After Eric has sex with his mistress (Juliette Binoche) – he having sat perfectly still in his throne-like chair in the limo – we watch her writhing about the seats and the floor in playful sensuality from his perspective, where her movements come across as something to be regarded and puzzled over.  There are numerous occasions where a character will say something about him or herself or an idea, and Eric responds by placing what was said into the realm of a separate object, calling it “this” as though it were a thing that can only be understood when taken away from context and processed.  As he discusses the possibility of having sex with his new wife, and the reasons why they won’t, or her interests in a book store, he analyzes her motivations rather than engaging with her on a personal level, and it is highly unlikely that she is capable of engaging with him on any meaningful level either.  There are a number of times when I thought of the idle rich of Last Year at Marienbad, playing out their little drama almost expressionless, oftentimes posing as though they were the statues in the gardens of the estate where they gathered.

Despite that description, this film is never boring or dry.  There’s an almost Bunuel-esque tone running throughout, not just in its treatment of the rich and powerful, but it’s in humorous absurdities.  This is actually a frequently funny film with lot of wit on display, both in the dialogue and the editing.  The score, by Metric and Howard Shore, is often incongruously playful or wistful – although it can be quite driving and foreboding when it needs to be.  It is not, thankfully, a mere screed against the ennui of late capitalism.  The disconnect is real, but it’s not solely down to an active disdain for everyone else or even a conscious disinterest – simplistic judgments are eschewed in favour of observation and curiosity.  Pattinson doesn’t rely on coldness, though that element is there.  He also doesn’t reduce Packer to base desires crossed with the shallow fraudulence of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (a tempting counterpart for Cosmopolis, but not a fitting one).  Packer seems to be trapped in a Randian, ultra-rational mindset from which he’s desperate to escape, but because of what is essentially his programming he is rarely able to express it.  I’ve never been able to write Pattinson off as nothing more than a heartthrob from a terrible series of popular films, and though a lot of actors in his position attempt to throw off the shackles of their fanbase, not many succeed quite so naturally.  He’s similar to Johnny Depp in that respect, minus the idiosyncraticies.

Cosmopolis works because of Pattinson and Delillo’s dialogue, but this is still Cronenberg through and through.  It is nothing short of amazing how he finds so many ways to film inside the enclosed space of the limo without ever being flashy about it.  As for tone, it’s probably the most traditionally “Cronenberg” film in over a decade.  Its world is askew and full of unease, and though apocalyptic events are happening all around, nobody is entirely sure how to interpret them.  The same can be said for the film itself, but it is also fascinating, peculiarly visceral, and even a little humanist.  There are so many facets and ideas bouncing around in its brisk 105-minute running time that I will require a second viewing at some point in the future.  For now, consider it one of the best films of the year so far – or, at the very least, on of the most unique.


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