Eric Packer (Pattinson) is a 28-year-old CEO and billionaire who has made his fortune speculating on financial markets. He sets out to cross Manhattan in his stretch limo for the purpose of getting a haircut. Of course, there are complications: the US president is visiting, creating traffic chaos with “whole streets wiped from the map,” warns Packer’s bodyguard; there is also news of a “credible threat” to the president, increasing security concerns; anti-capitalist protestors are on the streets; and Packer keeps running into his wife (Gadon, who played Jung’s wife in A Dangerous Method) at inopportune moments, usually after a tryst with one of his mistresses. “You reek of sex,” she tells him during one meeting at an upmarket bar. “It’s just these peanuts,” is Packer’s dispassionate reply.
During his crosstown odyssey, Packer meets various acquaintances and employees, takes meetings, has sex and gets involved in a full-blown riot. Reports of a threat to Packer’s life emerge, but Packer is unconcerned. He seems no more worried by a run on the Yuan that wipes hundreds of millions from his wealth over the course of the day. In fact, all he seems concerned about is getting his haircut.
Cosmopolis is the latest film from David Cronenberg and another of his adaptations from “difficult” literary sources – in this case, a novel by American literary giant Don DeLillo. On the surface Cosmopolis looks like a return to more Cronenbergian territory than the early 20th century Vienna of his last film, the underrated A Dangerous Method (itself based on a play). Cronenberg has specialised, it seems, in bringing literary works commonly regarded as unfilmable to the screen. Starting with his incredible adaptation of William Burroughs drugs’n’bugs nightmare The Naked Lunch, then JG Ballard’s [auto]erotic Crash, and Patrick McGrath’s Spider – a first-person narrative told from the point of view of seriously mentally ill protagonist. Cosmopolis is no less challenging. For a start, it almost entirely talks place in a car. In fact, Cronenberg has moved one sex scene which in the novel happens in a flat into the car. Most directors try to open out material like this; Cronenberg is not “most directors”.
However, beneath a surface gloss and some echoes of previous films, I would argue that Cosmopolis is actually less Cronenbergian than A Dangerous Method. The film opens on a seemingly endless line of gleaming white Lincoln limousines, evoking the fetishising of the automobile in the controversial Crash. Packer himself seems quite like several of Cronenberg’s signature characters. Like Max Renn in Videodrome, he appears to be looking for something beyond the surface crust of reality.
Technology is represented by Packer’s extraordinary method of transportation. The limo is super hi-tech, full of data screens, bullet proof, explosion proof, lined with cork to cut out street noise (only partially successfully). Obviously the car has a bar, but it also a medical ultrasound scanner utilised for daily medical exams, and a toilet built into the marble floor. The cabin is a self enclosed womb in which Packer sits on a black leather throne which looks like a fetish club version of Captain Kirk’s command chair on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Cronenberg’s characters are almost often seekers looking to find some mysterious truth. This was certainly true of Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method. However, as Cosmopolis progresses, it seems that Packer is a nihilist on a deliberate quest of self destruction. This perhaps makes him closer to the characters of Crash with their obviously self destructive auto erotic tendencies, but even those characters were engaged in the exploration of sexual extremes; the headlong rush into oblivion was a byproduct, not the goal. Packer is obviously a very intelligent man; other characters constantly remark on how much smarter he is than they, but like many genius level people he seems his attention is elsewhere at all times. He is never quite engaged with the world. Until, perhaps, it is too late.
A Dangerous Method received criticism from some quarters for being too talky and lacking the visceral punch the director is known for. Cosmopolis is actually an even more talky film. The entire movie is a series of dialogues; even the sex scenes feature characters engaged in conversation. Lines are lifted directly from DeLillo’s novel, and are very unnaturalistic. It rarely seems that the characters are actually listening to one another. There is a great scene with Morton as some sort of post-post-something-or-other financial theorist, wittering on about markets, but constantly stopping to say: “But I know nothing about this,” as Packer drinks vodka and anti-capitalist rioters spraypaint the outside of the limo.
DeLillo published the novel in 2003, and it was not well received. However, as visualised by Cronenberg it seems eerily and chillingly prescient – we are now fully in the grip of a global financial meltdown, in part largely caused by characters like Packer creating an illusory bubble of wealth that has spectacularly burst, landing us all in the shit. Packer is clearly one of the 1% who control 99% of the wealth. His journey takes place against a backdrop of anti-capitalist protests that are treated with no less withering a gaze. Almaric appears as a protestor to represent the common man, but rather than engage in any meaningful way, he throws a custard pie at Packer (a nice echo of Murdoch’s appearance before the the House of Commons' Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee).
The part of Packer was originally earmarked for Colin Farrell, but he was forced to pull out due to scheduling conflicts with the Total Recall remake (anyone who knows their Cronenberg will appreciate the irony). Pattinson is actually a better fit for the part. For a start the character, is supposed to be 28 in the novel. Also, this is quite different from anything the Twilight star as attempted to date, so his performance feels box fresh. No doubt the arch dialogue and stylised performance will irk some, but Pattinson does excellent work here. If this is a conscious attempt to move away from Edward Cullen, he couldn’t have chosen a better project (although I can still dream about what a Cronenberg-directed Breaking Dawn would have been like). Pattinson is in every scene; all the other performers merely drop in to his story. Cronenberg has gathered a great supporting cast that includes, in addition to the aforementioned Morten and Almaric, Binoche, Baruchel and a brilliantly deranged Giamatti.
This is a cold, detached and slightly antiseptic film, these are common criticisms of the director that are usually unwarranted, but do seem to apply here. This may be more to do with the source material than anything else. There are several sex scenes in the movie, but they do not generate any real heat, partly as mentioned before because the participants are always engaged in conversation. However, there is one scene that, while not a “sex” scene as such, is among the kinkiest things I think I have seen on a screen this year not involving Michael Fassbender. You will know it when it happens; it involves a water bottle and some rubber gloves. Whatever you are picturing in your head right now, I doubt it bears any resemblance to the film. But can I just say ... you dirty, dirty people.
Cosmopolis is provocative and full of ideas, but it seems to skate along the surface of current events without penetrating deeply and offering any real insight. This is disappointing from Cronenberg, who I consider to be one of the great artists working in the medium of film. However, this may be a problem on my part, and I shall be revisiting this awkward, chilly, difficult movie again soon.