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In David Cronenberg's COSMOPOLIS, the language can't keep up.

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by Matt Zoller Seitz
September 12, 2012 10:30 AM
7 Comments
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David Cronenberg’s movie version of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, a black comedy about a financier whose life is falling apart, is a snapshot of Western civilization in existential panic. It’s the early 21st century. Labels and categories are blurring or dissolving. Economies and governments are disintegrating too, melting like Cronenbergian flesh. We humans don’t know who we are anymore as individuals, as a nation, as a race, as a species. Everything—philosophy, politics, religion, economics—has become data. So it's no wonder DeLillo’s characters compulsively narrate their lives, stating, in hilariously hyper-specific words, what they think, feel, and believe, defining and re-defining themselves as they speak: “What happens to all these stretch limos that prowl the throbbing city all day long?” “One learns about the countries where war is occurring by riding the taxis here.” “You have your mother’s breasts.” “Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.”  “A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable.” The words sound desperate even when delivered in a DeLillo/Cronenberg fervent/mesmerized monotone. “This is good,” says one member of a conversation. “We sound like people talk. This is how they talk.” But language is not enough. “Life is evolving so fast,” a character muses, “that language can’t keep up.”

Rob Pattinson stars as Eric Packer, the aforementioned billionaire—a 28-year asset manager inching through Manhattan in his stretch limo, headed for a haircut appointment. When the story begins, he’s cool and collected, if a bit frayed around the edges. He thinks he’s insulated from harm by his wealth, his tank-like limousine, his deadpan driver (Abdul Ayoola), and his unflappable chief of security (Kevin Durand). But he doesn’t control anything. His limo can’t get anywhere because a presidential visit and a beloved rapper’s public funeral have gridlocked the city. Eric’s brittle young wife Elise Schifrin (Sarah Gadon) won’t have sex with him because, she says, she wants to conserve her energy for her career; she’s also hip to his alpha-male infidelities, and she keeps insisting he smells sex on him. (“It’s hunger you smell,” he says, lamely.) He can’t really control his fortune, either. He thinks he’s made smart investments, but soon enough his net worth trends downward.

All these frustrations and misfortunes feel less like moralistic punishment than something more chillingly mysterious: a disaster/miracle creeping over everything, like the Airborne Toxic Event in DeLillo’s 1986 novel White Noise.  “I think you acquire information and turn it into something awful,” Elise tells him at one point, unwittingly describing what society itself has been doing for decades. As Arthur Jensen bellowed in Network, “There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immense, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.” Or to quote Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked, “Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.”

This is the smallest movie Cronenberg has directed in a long time, and yet its containment seems more like a proof of his ability than a constraint. Even though Cronenberg wrote the script for the screen, I will always think of Cosmopolis as a filmed play, one of the best I’ve seen. It compresses DeLillo’s novel (which itself feels play-like in spots) without trying to “open it out,” as hack movie producers are always begging playwrights to do.  Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was…, and Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street and My Dinner With Andre pursued a strategy similar to Cronenberg's. Roughly 60% of the movie occurs inside Eric’s limo, its ribbed dark interior evoking the telepod in Cronenberg’s The Fly; the other 40% takes place on streets and sidewalks and in garages and claustrophobic nightclubs packed with writhing bodies. Its climax is a ten-minute conversation between Eric and a shadowy tormentor (Paul Giamatti) in a depopulated, run-down warehouse. By that point, we’re so starved for open air that its narrow hallways and cluttered offices feel as big as palace throne rooms.

Even though its tone is resigned and mordantly funny and its pace is slow, Cosmopolis is a thrillingly spare, controlled work. But you have to be willing to adapt to its sleepwalking mood and to its performances, which occur within such a narrow emotional bandwidth that at one point I pictured an orchestra conductor handing a violinist a Stradivarius with one string and saying, “You can make beautiful music with this, trust me.” Every actor rises to the challenge. The movie features one bizarre knockout supporting turn after another: Juliette Binoche as a lover who interrogates Eric after fucking him; Gadon’s Elise, whose beyond-her-years cynicism is a bulwark against emotional collapse; Durand’s security guy Torval, who’s got more didja-know tidbits than Johnny the Shoeshine Guy on Police Squad! but ultimately comes to seem like just another lost soul blustering through chaos. Giamatti’s all-out anguish in the finale almost steals the picture from Pattinson.

But the star never loses his grip. I never would have guessed from the Twilight movies that he was capable of a performance this intelligent, despairing, and honest; at his best he reminded me of James Spader’s character in sex, lies and videotape, a smug bastard who intellectualizes his selfishness into faux-philosophy. If Pattinson gets nominated for awards for Cosmopolis, the clip should be the scene where Eric carries on a high-flown conversation while enduring the longest prostate exam in history, an invasion of an asshole’s asshole. But there’s a real person beneath Eric’s shellacked surface, and when it finally cracks—in a surprisingly tender exchange with a rapper (Gouchy Boy) grieving for his dead hero and his own mortality—the character’s pain feels real, and true.

Cronenberg doesn’t just ask his actors to be ascetics. He keeps the camera far back whenever possible, cuts to closeups as punctuation, and sometimes lets amazingly intense moments run from one angle for a minute or longer, the better to allow us to scrutinize speakers and listeners. This stripped-down approach makes Cosmopolis feel a bit like live TV drama from the ‘50s, devoted mainly to performance and dialogue but constantly thinking in pictures. An opening scene featuring Love Boat-level rear-screen projection would sink lesser films, but here it seems to fit because the action is (for all its perversity, violence and sudden bursts of emotion) more figurative than literal.

More so than any other Cronenberg film—including the manifesto-like Play of Ideas eXistenZ—this one feels like a summing up of everything he’s been telling and showing us since the 1970s. Flesh, identity, consciousness are all prone to disintegrate or morph. By adapting a book by DeLillo, a fellow chronicler of slow-motion apocalypse, the filmmaker expands his vision to encompass a species grappling with cataclysmic change.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

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7 Comments

  • nikki | September 14, 2012 8:09 PMReply

    Thank you for this very interesting article. Watching Cosmopolis is an experience you only have once in a while. You can rewatch the movie and each time other aspects of it will get your attention which is the same for the novel too. I've read complains that the movie feels so cold, so emotionless but I don't agree. Just as the novel, the movie gives you a very deep level of emotion, almost to an existential base, an emotion you not really want to feel. It's like you're reading/watching the end of the world. Cosmopolis the movie is IMHO a masterpiece that unfortunately is undervalued.
    Though the story is more surreal, it's striking how Eric Packer, Elise, Didi, Benno and the other characters are like caricatures of people in our real life.
    Every actor is superb in the film with an absolute outstanding performance of Robert Pattinson. As he's in every scene, he carried the movie on his shoulders and he did it with verve.
    At an age where most other actors would play in teencomedies, he, being an untrained actor, gave some brave performances in art house movies.
    In The Haunted Airman (a BBC production) he performed, at the age of only 19, a traumatized RAF pilote in a way that convinced me that he could pull off edgy roles very well. The movie itself was rather messy but his performance, especially towards the end, was brilliant.
    In Little Ashes he played a young Salvador Dali. Everybody knows that playing Dali is almost impossible, but Rob did what he could and delivered some great, touching moments in the movie.

  • I'm a Rob fan | September 14, 2012 1:44 PMReply

    " I never would have guessed from the Twilight movies that he was capable of a performance this intelligent, despairing, and honest" - just wondered Have you seen Haunted Airman? Little Ashes? Even How to Be? Or Bad moters handbook?Because if you missed you thought that, if you saw them, you knew very well, he was capable for play this EP. And.... if you read the Twilight books and Midnight sun's 12 chapters, tha youshould know, Rob made Edward the right way. The story and the films are not his fault.

  • Kanerwa | September 13, 2012 7:24 AMReply

    Exellent review,thank you very much.Cronenberg said this : ''If Rob were a violin he would be a Stradivarius''.

  • George | September 12, 2012 8:45 PMReply

    Well done. Very good read and totally on point. I was totally absorbed when watching this film. All of the performances were strong, but, as you said Pattinson was both a surprise and the standout.

  • BuckyW | September 12, 2012 4:02 PMReply

    I love that you’ve brought the state one can experience watching 'Cosmopolis' ("one must be willing to adapt to its sleepwalking mode") into the discourse on the film (AJ as well.) I've been thinking of what to post on this since Cronenberg’s comment during the promo tour: "I've always thought that movies work in terms of dream logic.” It seems it may relate both to Eric's own psychic and physical disconnect (time and space), and as you say, the viewing experience. I've seen more than a half dozen audience reactions now, and it seems people experience a bit of a different reality for two hours.

    Having written on Don DeLillo’s source novel, I think the links you make between his and the director's work--chronicling the slow moving apocalypse, the 'Airborne Toxic Event'--are wonderful. Did anyone notice the transition between the Pollock-like opening credit image to the first shot of the limo grill? The Pollock image disappeared under what looked like a black cloud in the upper right growing until it engulfed the frame. A toxic cloud? Darkness descending? Love Cronenberg’s brilliant use of credits in his films.

    Your review gives much to think about and it should encourage people to want to experience this film. Thanks for Ok’ing posting a portion of your review and link on our blog, cosmopolis-film.com.

  • AJ | September 12, 2012 1:13 PMReply

    Perceptive review. The film felt similar to being under the influence of a narcotic, while awake. creating a curious tension throughout. Great work all round and definitely shows the mastery of Cronenberg's symbiosis of man and machine.

  • Carol | September 12, 2012 12:57 PMReply

    I liked cosmopolis, is a very rare film, interesting and different and robert pattinson is awesome in the movie. The final scene between Robert and giamati is wonderful.

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