Directed by David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg’s newest film Cosmopolis is an extremely cold and alienating film about an extremely cold and alienated man. For many viewers, likely those who are unfamiliar with Cronenberg’s work or who only know him by his more recent works like A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, that cold distance will be a barrier keeping them from engaging with the film in any meaningful way. For viewers more familiar with Cronenberg’s filmography, however, Cosmopolis will likely feel like a welcome return home for the director. Robert Pattinson stars as Eric Packer, a billionaire assets manager at only 28, and at 28 already in full-scale life crisis, although that crisis only simmers beneath the surface of his impenetrably blank demeanor. Packer decides that he wants a haircut, and so takes his personal limousine/mobile office, all slick leather and glowing digital screens encased in soundproof glass to block out the noise of the city, on a slow trek across Manhattan to his barber, as a presidential visit, a musician’s funeral, and a massive protest cause major traffic jams along the way. As his vehicle crawls through the streets, various associates make their way into his limo, many to discuss the aftermath of Packer’s bet against the chinese yuan, which threatens to destroy his finances, although he seems less concerned with his impending economic disaster than he is with getting his wife (Sarah Gadon) to have sex with him.
Reaction to Cosmopolis has been decidedly mixed, and it’s not hard to understand why. For one, the dialogue, which is by Cronenberg’s account largely lifted unadulterated from Don DeLillo’s source novel, is quite stylized, cold, complex language that is often delivered in a style devoid of emotion and the usual give-and-take of most real-world conversation. Furthermore, much of the dialogue takes on either an economic or philosophical tack, and sometimes a combination of the two, delving into jargon and heady ideas that most moviegoers may not be equipped to process on a single viewing (myself included). This creates further distance between the audience and the protagonist, making the story even more enigmatic. Add to this the dark interior of the limo, the black leather and Packer’s black suit illuminated by the unnatural neon glow of technology, as if he’s encased in a slick, futuristic coffin, and it becomes even harder for the viewer to find a shred of humanity in the film. This isn’t a negative, however, despite what some viewers might believe. This inhuman quality to Packer and the entire cast of characters is purposeful, and is why the film is a return to form for Cronenberg. This same sense of absent humanity, of characters coldly distant from the real world, is present in all of Cronenberg’s best films - Videodrome, Naked Lunch, The Fly, Dead Ringers, The Brood - and is what gives his films a uniquely haunting mood that makes them distinctive as Cronenberg films. Cosmopolis doesn’t do much with the “body horror” that has shaped Cronenberg’s career, but it does share several other thematic concepts with his earlier films. One such concept is the dehumanizing quality of technology, a quality seen in literal terms in The Fly and Videodrome, but here is seen in a more figurative manner. As the world becomes more digitized, people become more isolated, and so it is with Packer, his limo a digital bubble keeping him insulated from the chaos of the city, an isolation he bristles against. Although the film isn’t explicit, there’s a suggestion that Parker’s losing bet on the yuan was an act of self-sabotage, a means of financial suicide to allow for an escape from the sanitized protection of his life, which he finally completes in violent fashion in the film’s final sequences. Another repeated theme in Cronenberg’s work is the confluence of violence and sex, evidenced particularly in Videodrome, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, Rabid, and Crash (I haven’t seen Crash, but I know enough to know it fits here). Again, Cosmopolis is less explicit in exploring this theme. Instead of combining acts of sex and violence, Packer finds himself fascinated with both - desperate for sex with his wife, even after two different sexual liasons, and repeatedly inviting violence upon himself and committing it - as means of “feeling something”, of proving himself to be alive and human, with both sex and violence having equal power to do so in his mind. Cosmopolis differs from most if not all the previously mentioned films because while those films have protagonists who start out with a fair amount of humanity becoming embroiled in events that make them more isolated from humanity as the film progresses, this film finds its protagonist almost completely isolated from the world by technology and wealth and sees him slowly working to regain his humanity, although its quite debatable how much of that humanity he achieves by story’s end.
The revelation of Cosmopolis is Robert Pattinson, who is marvelous as Packer. The role calls for a performance wherein the character is outwardly stoic, blank, and even vacuous, and yet there has to be the smallest sliver of pathos and desperation underneath the surface, barely perceptible to other characters in the film but easily accessible to any perceptive audience member. Pattinson handles this balance perfectly, keeping an utterly cool exterior while letting Packer’s vulnerability come out in deceptively subtle ways. This balance is key to making Packer’s vulnerable moments mesh with his otherwise robotic demeanor, so that, for example, when Packer gets his daily physical and becomes paranoid at the revelation of his “asymmetrical prostrate”, the paranoia doesn’t clash against the balanced composure of Packer’s character but instead works with it, hinting at why that composure is starting to break down and why Packer himself appears to be engineering that break down. Pattinson, who appears in every scene, is teamed up with a great deal of supporting talent - Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Paul Giamatti, Emily Hampshire, Jay Baruchel, and more - who all reveal the character of Packer by the contrasts between him and each of their characters highlighted in their respective scenes. Another revelation comes in the form of Sarah Gadon as Packer’s wife, who is in her own way just as robotic and composed as Packer, but who has a sense of warmth and innocence in her that is entirely absent in Packer, and who intuits the uncertainty and danger looming underneath Packer’s cool exterior. As a companion to Packer, Gadon is a perfect match and foil to Pattinson, the one character in the film that seems to elude Packer’s will and pose a real intellectual challenge to his self-destructive goals, which explains his fascination with her as well as his lack of true romantic feeling for her, as if having sex with her is more about conquest than love or even lust.
Cosmopolis is admittedly a difficult film to process, as the dialogue is knowingly impenetrable and its philosophical musings are convoluted and may well be complete drivel (I didn’t absorb enough of it to say for sure one way or the other). More than anything though, Cosmopolis is a master class in the creation of mood, a talent that few directors can exercise to the extent that Cronenberg can. The film will make you feel uncomfortable, maybe even disgusted, maybe even angry, but no matter what, you won’t leave the film having felt nothing. You’ll feel that you’ve just seen something, even if you can’t say exactly what the hell it is that you just saw, and it’s that exact effect that makes Cronenberg such a fascinating filmmaker.
Four out of five suns