dir. David Cronenberg, 2012, Canada/France
The bottom line: long live the new New Flesh!
Now playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema is Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of the acclaimed 2003 novel by Don DeLillo. Cosmopolis premiered to mixed reviews at the Cannes Film Festival in May, proving even more divisive than Cronenberg’s previous movie, 2011′s superb A Dangerous Method, which had premiered to mixed reviews at the Venice International Film Festival last fall. Both films have been derided by critics for being too “talky” and “static,” and for failing to successfully translate their literary source material to the screen (A Dangerous Method was based on a play by Christopher Hampton). These criticisms however are incredibly misguided; Cosmopolis, like A Dangerous Method, is a profoundly cinematic film that just so happens to be about language. Where Cronenberg’s previous film illustrated the therapeutic possibilities of the act of talking itself (via Sigmund Freud’s revolutionary “talking cure” in the early twentieth century), the new film shows how language can be wielded as a dangerous weapon in the modern day world of international high finance. Cosmopolis also simultaneously and gratifyingly harks back to Cronenberg’s pioneering early work in the “body horror” genre, especially Videodrome, in its depiction of a world where human beings seem capable of merging with, and are thus ultimately in danger of being replaced by, technology. As Pete Townshend might say, “Meet the new New Flesh / Same as the old New Flesh.”
Cosmopolis is also both the simplest and the most complex movie that David Cronenberg has ever made. The plot can be described in one sentence: A billionaire takes a limo ride from one end of Manhattan to the other in order to get a haircut. But, like the Jean-Luc Godard of Weekend (the ultimate traffic jam-as-metaphor film), Cronenberg believes that the journey is more important than the destination, and I’m not giving anything away by saying that Eric Packer, the film’s 28-year old protagonist and the limousine’s owner/chief passenger, does succeed in his goal of getting a trim. What’s more important to Cronenberg (and DeLillo) is using this basic scenario to comment upon the increasingly abstract nature of life in the 21st century. Eric Packer, played with chilling effectiveness by the blandly handsome teen-heartthrob Robert Pattinson, conducts business meetings, has sexual relations and even receives a medical exam (and the lines between these activities occasionally become provocatively blurred), all within the confines of the white stretch limo that serves as the film’s principal set. One gets the feeling that Packer could live his entire life inside of this car. Like the Alfred Hitchcock of Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window, Cronenberg has set himself the challenge of making a movie mostly within a single confined space, a challenge that he overcomes through the technical virtuosity of his mise-en-scene. As the limo becomes deadlocked in traffic, Packer observes, on various touch screen devices, the dramatic appreciation of the Chinese yuan whose immediate fortunes he has bet against. The limo, soundproofed and sporting tinted windows, can be seen as both a cocoon shielding Packer from the outside world as well as an extension of the character’s own mind, and Cronenberg wrings a surprising amount of visual interest out of this location from his myriad camera setups. (The director has also said that one of the reasons he cast Pattinson was that he needed an actor whose face was conducive to being photographed from an infinite number of angles.)
One of the most common generic criticisms I hear about movies from my students (and this is particularly true after I screen New Hollywood films of the 1970s that center on anti-heroes such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Days of Heaven) is that they found it impossible to “care about” or “root for” the characters. This criticism has become so commonplace that I’ve developed stock replies of, “If you want to care about somebody, spend time with your family or friends” and “If you want to root for someone, watch a sporting event.” Then, coming down from my snarky high-horse, I more logically argue that it shouldn’t be necessary to like a movie’s characters in order to like a movie. In the final analysis, shouldn’t it just be enough to find the characters interesting? If it were a universal prerequisite to like a film’s protagonist in order to be able to enjoy a film, then absolutely everyone would hate Cosmpopolis because Eric Packer is the single most unlikable protagonist I’ve seen in a movie this year (and, remember, I’ve seen Killer Joe). Packer is impossibly wealthy, moves in the most rarified social circles, has access to technology and resources that 99% of movie audiences cannot conceive of, and also speaks a tech-heavy slang that nobody really understands. He is a man who has everything but is also dead inside. (I suspect many viewers will find the extreme stupidity of Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell to also be a stumbling block in appreciating Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which opens in Chicago next month. Freddie is the polar opposite of the genius Eric Packer; he’s the dumbest lead character I can recall seeing in a dramatic Hollywood movie, even dumber than Raging Bull‘s Jake LaMotta.)
The soullessness of Packer, of course, is precisely Cronenberg’s point. The specifics of Packer’s business, how exactly he’s “bet against” the yuan, don’t matter. Cosmopolis is ultimately a portrait of the alienating effects of wealth and technology. The most instructive way for Cronenberg to show this is to focus on a member of the 1%: a man who lives in a bubble, stares endlessly at computer screens and never sees any physical results of the kind of work he does. Appropriately, the film’s brilliant dialogue, written by Cronenberg but recycling a lot of the text of DeLillo’s novel verbatim, isn’t meant to be “understood” in the conventional sense. What matters is the emotion lying underneath all of the curiously cadenced technobabble. (For those in tune with what Cronenberg is up to, the climactic scene between Packer and a disgruntled employee portrayed by Paul Giamatti is going to come across as a particularly impressive high-wire act of writing/directing/acting.) A more naturalistic rendering of one billionaire’s personal financial crisis, even if it may coincide with the current financial crisis, would probably be deadly dull to watch. In the dream-like world of Cosmopolis, however, finance itself is only a Macguffin in much the same fashion as the “spy stuff” in a Hitchcock movie that nobody really cares about or remembers afterwards. As the always-articulate Cronenberg himself put it in a recent interview, “I think of (Cosmopolis) like a sci-fi movie where the intergalactic pilot is explaining the way his spaceship works. You don’t need to know what he’s talking about, you just need to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. Eric Packer understands when his Chief of Theory is explaining how the future connects with capitalism. It excites him, and that’s all you need to know.”
Cosmopolis is not a film for everyone, although it will definitely satisfy a certain type of adventurous viewer (you know who you are). I think of it as the inverse of the last film I saw at the Landmark, and the most overrated movie of the year, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both films are literal and figurative odysseys that reference real world socio-economic turbulence (the Occupy movement in Cosmopolis, the fallout of Hurricane Katrina in Beasts) but remain a step removed from reality in order to better reinforce each filmmaker’s philosophical point-of-view. The crucial difference between them is the difference between abstraction and vagueness. Cronenberg is deliberately abstract on a superficial level in order to reach greater psychological truths about modern living whereas Zeitlin is deliberately vague when it should matter most in order to better sweep the viewer along in a sea of feel-good emotion. While Beasts uses its adorable moppet-heroine as a floating signifier to rewrite the tragedy of Katrina and charm audiences with a fictional interracial utopia, Cosmopolis intentionally disturbs viewers in its depiction of a chaotic world where a man with no soul hurtles inexorably toward an uncertain future with terrifying velocity. In spite of its surface topicality, Beasts could have, and probably should have, been made forty years ago. Cosmopolis, by contrast, is a film every bit as coolly alluring and unsettling as the twenty-first century it chronicles.