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Cannes Review: David Cronenberg's 'Cosmopolis' Is Both An Excellent Adaptation & A Rich, Complex Character Study

Reviews
by Simon Abrams
May 25, 2012 8:12 AM
12 Comments
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"Cosmopolis," an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s typically provocative novel of the same name, is the first feature film since 1999's "eXistenZ" that filmmaker David Cronenberg has directed and scripted. This in part explains why "Cosmopolis" is such a triumph: it’s both an exceptional adaptation and a remarkable work unto itself.

Cronenberg makes slight but salient changes to DeLillo’s source narrative. These changes, which are best described by one character as “slight variation[s],” prove that Cronenberg’s given serious consideration to what should and shouldn’t be represented in his adaptation of the author’s ruminative, conversation-driven narrative. For example, in Cronenberg’s film, Eric Packer (a surprisingly adequate Robert Pattinson), an ambivalent and self-destructive power broker, does not get to have sex with his wife like he’s wanted to do throughout DeLillo’s book. Other changes, like the fact that Packer is investing and studying the steady rise in the Chinese yuan in the film and not the Japanese yen, as in the book, are equally striking. These differences noticeably enrich DeLillo’s original story, making Cronenberg’s "Cosmopolis" that much more rewarding in its own dizzying way.

It’s fitting that Pattinson, today’s It boy, plays Packer, considering who Cronenberg’s Packer is. As a former start-up wunderkind, the 28 year-old Packer is comically death-obsessed. “We die every day,” he risibly exclaims to one of his sizeable retinue of advisors. Packer gets daily check-ups from his doctors partly because he enjoys the routine of it but also because he’s looking for something to confirm his suspicions. He’s convinced he’s found that something when he’s told that his prostate is asymmetrical. It’s pretty funny to see Pattinson, being the young, pretty tabula rasa that he is, play Packer, a wheeler-dealer that used to be hot shit but is now unable to sleep because he fears that he’s no longer relevant.

Throughout both versions of "Cosmopolis," Packer searches for a break in his routine. Against the advice of his over-protective bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand), he fights back anarcho-protestors and gridlock traffic caused by the President’s visit to another part of town so he can go get a haircut. The ritual, and also the familiarity of this ritual, is what matters to Packer. But Packer also insists on going out and getting his haircut now because, as he explains during one of many declamatory speeches, of the turbulent conditions Torval has warned of. He’s no longer waiting on his death, he’s inviting it.

Packer is in that sense, as is also later explained point-blank in a speech, a contradictory figure. For example, he allows Vija Kinski (Samantha Morton), one of the more decisively outspoken of his advisors, to tell him that the anti-capitalist protestors that are impeding his progress are actually just another part of the capitalist system. Pattinson’s Packer latently agrees with this assessment but that changes when he sees one protestor self-immolate himself. Kinski insists that the protestor’s gesture is unimportant, but Pattinson sulkily protests that it has to be. The fact that Pattinson’s practically pouting when he rejects Morton’s negative assessment is telling. His death wish is sheer petulance, something that doesn’t come across as directly in the original novel.

 Cronenberg and Pattinson’s Packer is a different kind of suicidal but their character isn’t significantly less active in constructing his own demise. In DeLillo’s "Cosmopolis," Packer knows what’s happening with the yen, whose value keeps exponentially increasing, but is keeping that knowledge close to his chest. In Cronenberg’s variation, he's less sure. Packer is thus more immediately defined by his frustration with the finite-ness of his capabilities. He looks to others for solutions to his problems and finds that his yes-team can only confirm his own impotence. He is not slyly organizing his own downfall, but frantically seeking it out, unsure of whether or not he can find what he’s looking for. Packer only succeeds by sheer dumb luck: the man and an assassin looking for him have a lot more in common than the two realize.

At the same time, Cronenberg doesn’t slim down DeLillo’s simultaneously sprawling and precisely dense narrative as much as he carves his own flourishes onto it. A couple of scenes, including Packer’s interest in bidding on a chapel full of art, and his visit to a night club full of drug-fueled ravers, are only necessary to establish a uniform pace to Cronenberg’s narrative. But in that sense, these scenes are just as essential as the ones where Kinski and Torval give Packer advice. Everything matters in Cronenberg’s "Cosmopolis," but not everything is necessarily the same as DeLillo’s book. And that makes the film, as a series of discussions about inter-related money-minded contradictions, insanely rich and maddeningly complex. We can’t wait to rewatch it. [A]

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12 Comments

  • Val | June 1, 2012 10:35 AMReply

    Robert pattinson in France has become the idol of the "Intelectual" press; the largest newspapers and magazines: Le monde ,Les Inrocks, Le Figaro,Libération, Le Point, etc praise him

  • marie | May 26, 2012 4:40 PMReply

    Thank you, Mr Abrams, reading a review where the critic has also read the book is so more interesting. I can agree with a lot you have written, it's all very thoughtful.
    After I had read the book I was left with so much confusion and questions like: who the hell is this Eric Packer that I soon read the novel a second, a third and a fourth time. Every time I looked at Packer in a different way and I discovered other meanings about society. Don DeLillo was very visionary when he wrote his novel in 2003.
    I've seen the movie too, yesterday, and for me it's a masterpiece. Though on the one hand the many dialogues can pull people of, I still missed some remarkable lines from the novel like the one Eric said to his financial director during his prostate exam, I'm sure you know what I mean :).
    The problem with the dialogues IMHO is that in the novel you can read them back and back again, trying to understand the meaning of them. In the movie though, you obviously can't and that will make it more difficult for those who haven't read the book to get what is meant.
    Just as the book I think it can be necessary to rewatch the movie at least one time to fully enjoy Eric Packer and his genius mind.
    Spoken about genius: David Cronenberg was genius in casting Robert Pattinson who played Eric Packer to perfection and you, just as I, know what a difficult complex role it is.
    Sorry for eventual misakes as English isn't my native language.

  • Georgie | May 25, 2012 9:48 PMReply

    Polar opposites is right. Typical of Cronenberg it seems to be either love it or hate it. Reading this review , the narrative seems to fall totally within my wheelhouse. Very much looking forward to it!

  • tara | May 25, 2012 11:12 AMReply

    I just read the Hollywood Reporter review, so it's a major surprise to see a polar opposite analysis. I'm guessing this film will have varying levels of success.

  • Basil | May 25, 2012 11:31 AM

    Divisive are always so much more fun anyway.

  • AD | May 25, 2012 11:22 AM

    Well Justing Chang of Variety liked it. This is Cronenberg, some like him some don't.

  • Sam | May 25, 2012 10:24 AMReply

    GREAT REVIEW!! always knew it's was gonna be something special!

  • Sue | May 25, 2012 9:24 AMReply

    Don, thank you so much for your intelligent comment. I think I hear your mommy calling you for breakfast. I hear Cronenberg is back and I can't wait to see for myself.

  • Hello | May 25, 2012 9:15 AMReply

    (a surprisingly adequate Robert Pattinson) - talk about damning with faint praise.

  • tby | May 25, 2012 9:07 AMReply

    the title says it all

  • Don | May 25, 2012 8:57 AMReply

    I bet Pattinson is practically pouting in that scene because he is practically puting all the time.

  • Christian | May 25, 2012 8:39 AMReply

    Wow! Excited! :)

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