David Cronenberg’s return to urban dystopia is an unusual beast. Abrasive, yet beautiful, thoughtful and visceral, Cosmopolis ought to appease those whom claim that the Canadian filmmaker has strayed too far from his early body-horror roots in recent years, whilst still appealing to those that may prefer his later, more emotionally driven works. And thanks to the rather inspired meta-casting of Robert Pattinson, British actor-heart-throb and star of the hugely successful Twilightfranchise, the latest Cronenberg film has a third audience, those of that particular actors followers and fans. This is Cronenberg’s first film with such a figure, and it’s worth noting that even the least profitable of the Twilight films has raised more at the box office than the combined Cronenberg oeuvre. It makes for a curious theatrical experience, with an audience made up of a rather diverse group of people.
The billionaire has become the unlikely protagonist du jour for the mainstream cinema of the now. From The Avengers’ Tony Stark, through to The Dark Knight Rises and Bruce Wayne, via the faux-wrinkled oddity of Prometheus‘ Peter Weyland, Hollywood seems to have taken on board Justin Timberlake’s The Social Network assertion that mere millionaires just ain’t cool anymore. With Cosmopolis and Pattinson’s Eric Packer, David Cronenberg provides us with a noteworthy alternative. Proto-autistic and driven by a lust for knowledge (quite a difficult task when one is apparently a genius), Packer is the archetypical “man on the edge” albeit with a story told in a manner that is anything other than ordinary. Structurally the work is tied to a journey. The source novel, by Dan DiLillo was heavily informed heavily by James Joyce’s Ulysses, which itself of course owed much to Homer. We follow a day accompanying the businessman, as the character attempts to cross New York City in a limousine. Various figures from Packer’s life join him along the way, and partake in his ultimate downfall, all to the backdrop of ominous Occupy-esque protests and a presidential visit.
The closest film to Cosmopolis in Cronenberg’s existing body of work would probably be 1991’s Naked Lunch. While the earlier film was a more liberal adaptation involving autobiographical elements relating to the author, though one might surmise that in adapting a work as well drawn as DeLillo’s Cosmopolis is another example of the director tackling an existing literary work with a heavily defined voice. The screenplay for the film, written by Cronenberg himself, sees stoic dialogue, delivered flatly, yet perfectly in keeping with the style of the source material. Symbolism is rife, with the notion of rats as currency providing a recurring image. Jingoisms and statements feed the dialogue with assertions like “They come from horror and despair” punctuating the flow of converse. It lends a surreal edge to the whole project. Elsewhere, militaristic speak is used to describe the relatively simple task at hand: crossing town. Packer’s chief of security refers to a “Situation isn’t stable” throughout, emphasising the perceived danger of the situation, and encouraging the general feel of dystopia that runs throughout the picture.
Contrary to the heavy dialogue of the piece runs an interesting sound design. The claustrophobic world of the limousine, a microclimate separate from the world outside is marked by an eerie silence. Dialogue cuts through the nothing, leaving a tonally intriguing echo behind.
Pattinson leads the players admirably. He’s in every scene in the film, many of which would no doubt be deemed “challenging” in most quarters, and carries the piece laudably. An eclectic cast of supporting players surround Pattinson, from Juliette Binoche, who’s art dealer is a writhing, coil of sexuality, through to Mathieu Amalric’s memorable pastry terrorist. Samantha Morton, Kevin Durand and Paul Giamatti fill out the cast, while it’s relative unknown Sarah Gadon as Packer’s ephemeral wife that impresses most of all. Visually the polar opposite to her husband, Gadon’s Elise makes for an intriguing symmetry to the figure. Symetry, and notions of, is one of the key reference points in the career of Cronenberg, so it’s apt that it raises it’s head here.
Packer repeatedly refers to the idea that he is “looking for more”. Everything in the world of the billionaire is given a heightened spin, leading to a surrealist slant throughout. An acquaintance of Packer’s apologises on the behalf of a second, deceased friend for the latter’s “unglamorous” end, wary that those left living have been let down by the dead mans “normal” passing. A conversation concerning the romanticising of a former career as a cab driver descends in to repetitive one-sided statements reminiscent of an Hallmark card. A rectal examination descends in to something of a sex act thanks to the heated nature of business table buzz talk. It’s ridiculous, but accompanied by a sharp wit. Cronenberg knows exactly what he’s doing. One cannot help but recall Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend at times, with the commentary on the establishment and key-word declarations placing the more recent film firmly in the shadow of the latter. This notion of a financial apocalypse, of post-Occupy demonstrations, is stirringly relevant. Our protagonist’s obsessession with death leads us to question whether or not the man is actually alive in the timeline presented in the film itself, or if what we are witnessing is some kind of lucid dream or hallucination. It’s a fascinating work. It’s a film to dissect and mull over, to interpret and theorise about. It’s also something of an audience divider, and, somewhat ironically, is the directors least commercial work for quite some time.
Ultimately, and in spite of it’s initial visage Cosmopolis is a celebration of the imperfect. Basking in the asymmetrical (both literally via a prostate and the MacGuffin of a hair-cut, and figuratively in the characters own attachments) Cronenberg’s hero is ultimately freed when he is placed in a position out of his comfort zone, in which he is the one who is out of place from a comprehensibility perspective: He finds himself in a situation he can’t explain with logic, bringing upon an ultimate form of self destruction.