Sunday, August 26, 2012
The most entertaining part of watching Cosmopolis was the groups of late-teen/early-20s girls in my theatre. Some of them walked out an hour into it. Some of them looked disgusted when the movie was over. At least one looked like she'd fallen asleep. They made me chuckle because I knew they'd come to see Robert Pattinson outside of his Twilight niche, but I couldn't help but identify with many of these girls. Cosmopolis is a frustrating movie. It's more in the vein of James Joyce than anything else I can call to my mind (and even that comparison is full of holes), and it certainly resists and subverts narrative cohesion and logic.
David Cronenberg, who has spent the last decade moving a little bit closer to the mainstream than his die-hard fans would probably care for with A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and last year's confounding A Dangerous Method, moves back to his corner of stylized weirdness. I haven't read Don DeLillo's 2003 novel (Cronenberg did the adaptation himself), but there is certainly a literary quality to the film--an intense focus on words and interactions above narrative action, a kind of hermetic approach to probing the psychosis of the 1%.
Pattinson plays Eric, a 28-year old billionaire who seems to understand everything about the ins and outs of Wall St. He decides, on this particular day, he needs to travel across town to get a haircut, despite the president's visit and a popular rapper's funeral grinding traffic to a standstill. As Eric inches across the city, various characters enter and exit the limo: co-workers, his wife, his doctor, a prostitute. They have lofty conversations about finances, existence, the human psyche. In the background, society starts to deteriorate. There are massive uprisings in the street, the limo is graffitied, a group who insists "a specter is haunting the world" seems to fuel the anarchic spirit, but all the while Eric sits and talks, contemplating his own existence and slipping closer to some kind of mental break.
There's certainly a bit of serendipity involved in Cosmopolis: Occupy Wall Street took shape as Cronenberg was shooting the film, and that movement's resonances certainly inform and elevate it. The most striking images are the ones of immense foreground and background tension, where Eric refuses to look out his window and process what's happening behind him. Cronenberg crams the movie full of details by contrasting what's inside the limo with what's outside it -- the smooth polish of the leather chairs and the grime of the protestors smashing windows -- but keeps the dialogue largely away from these events.
Eric's conversations are admittedly hard to follow. There are many plays-on-words, clever reversals, odd misunderstandings, and lofty discourse about systems analysis and market projections. I tried to follow everything for about the first twenty minutes, but decided to give myself to the overall experience of the conversation, the effects of the actors' tones and the film's editing pattern. The characters in Cosmopolis are Cronenberg zombies in the best sense of the word, stalking the earth with singular purpose: acquiring currency and the power they think it provides.
The catch, of course, is that Eric is actually powerless. He's paranoid. He has a daily physical because he recognizes how fragile his own life is, and fears disease. The limo is a self-constructed haven of leather and screens, a place for him to hide from and attempt to analyze the world. When he wants to interact with some element of culture -- like a rapper whose music speaks to him -- he plays it in his apartment's personal elevator, co-opting its social relevance for his own luxury. After a while, Eric leaves the limo and his bodyguard despite threats against his life, deciding to confront head-on his own physical lack of power.
Cronenberg's aesthetic is sterilized, almost washed out. The camera doesn't capture Eric so much as it processes him. Lights are heavy, colors are drenched; this is a bleached world that gets dirtier and dirtier as Cosmopolis rolls along. The sex is more robotic than erotic, the violence jarring because of how abrupt and emotionless it's executed. Cronenberg is known for creating representations of the body, of sex, and of violence that are incredibly unique -- just watch The Fly and Dead Ringers -- and Cosmopolis is a somewhat different approach for him. It is not a visceral film. It is very contemplative, reserved, almost obsessed with its own details and its own thoughts. Like A Dangerous Method, one gets the sense Cronenberg is now analyzing himself, using his newer films to explore theories that guided his earlier work.
For many, that's understandably a turn-off. Cosmopolis begins and ends with a whimper, and its crescendoes are rather slight. It's held together by Robert Pattinson, who emerges here as a fully intellectual actor, capable of wrestling with this difficult task via the slightest of smirks. The film is like a prostate exam of one-percenter mentality, even if it doesn't offer up a particular diagnosis. It's fascinating for the way it tries to put so many ideas on the table, how it uses language and form to look at a society on the brink, how it uses Eric allegorically for an entire socio-cultural problem. It's perhaps equally tiresome for how cold it is, how it strips itself completely of traditional narrative devices for identification or for progressive action.
If it sounds like I'm of two minds about Cosmopolis, you're absolutely right. There are bits that stick with you, even if it seems impossible to remember how those pieces fit together in the first place. But whether you're enthralled, bored, or put-off by Cronenberg's direction, it's hard not to admire that he's at least able to capture something about this economic moment in a way no other filmmaker would dare to try.